Shells in Mesoamerica

Tulum was one set of ruins found in the Yucatan Peninsula. It was also the only Mayan city built on a coast around the late classic era (200CE-1000CE). Their daily routines included activities that involved the coast such as fishing and trading with other civilizations. Having the coast near home was an advantage for them because they could collect food such as shellfish, oyster, and fish. After eating the gastropods, they used many of their shells for different purposes. It is even said that shell middens (giant piles of shells) were found in this area. Shells played a big part in most Mesoamerica civilization when it came to creating jewelry, consumption, trading, and construction.

Nowadays, if a woman wants to buy jewelry, they go to a shopping mall where they can select from any type of jewelry they want. However, in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica most jewelry was made by using conchas (shells). They were cut and grounded using some labor intensive tools. After being cut and grounded, they were turned into adornments such as bracelets, beads, gorgets (jewelry that covered the throat), nose ornaments, plaques (an ornament tablet), rings, pendants, and tinklers (jewelry that was attached to clothing). Most kings wore shells as jewelry and when they died they were often buried with them. For instance, Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’s burial was found with many different types of shells that he might have worn as jewelry. The shells that were found with him were crafted into different type of figures. There were some shaped as animals, skulls, and stars. Shells were made more exquisite when they were made with jade, turquoise, or obsidian. These shells were mainly used for decorating the floor of the temples. There were only certain shells that could make jewelry both belonging to the gastropods and pelecypods. These were the only type of shells with which jewelry could be made.

In order to have a healthy life style, people must try to have a diet based on fruits, vegetables, and meats. Most Mesoamerica citizens had a variety of different types of meat. However, they also ate fish in particular gastropods such as oysters. By eating an oyster, a person can get high protein, omega 3, zinc, and low cholesterol. Mayans probably didn’t know of the benefits of eating gastropods. They probably just ate them because they were delicious. At the end of every meal, they threw out the shells and, with time, created shell middens or used some shells for other things like jewelry, construction, and trading. Every civilization needs to make a little money/goods from time to time. For the pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican, they traded shells with other civilizations as one way to get other goods. In many of the Aztec hieroglyphics, archaeologists can see that they traded using markets or merchants. Yet, many of the Mayan hieroglyphics never really mentioned anything with markets as their way of trading goods. Shell fish was normally eaten on the spot; it wasn't really a good thing to trade for money. They mainly collected the gastropods and eat the edible part immediately and would extract portions that could be used for trading.

Shells were burned for lime to make cement and plaster in order to make floors. Many people don't know that conchas were one way of creating different colors to paint or decorate a building. Murex, purpura, and thais were some of the gastropods they used in order to make different types of dyes. Other gastropods were used as containers that would hold the paint. They were also used to make musical instruments. Trumpets were the main instrument a Mayan could produce using a shell. They would cut the apical whorls (whorl near the apex) of large gastropods. Today there have been some recently discovered trumpets that had shells as their main component. Shells were also used in the creation of mask. For instance, when Pakal leader of the Palenque civilization died, there was a mask of jade made for him, and the eyes of the mask were created by using shells. They used this mask to put on the deceased kings or queens as a symbol of royalty.

Tulum was one of the Mayan civilization that used shells, however, shells could be found, in all Mayan civilizations. Shells played an important part of the Mesoamerica life style when it came to creating jewelry, construction, trading, and consumption. They had a unique part in the Mesoamerica society, and without them, Mayans would have probably not become a well-developed society.