Around the Islands | What is Spondylus?

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“AROUND the Islands” recently released a short documentary about the biology, history, and culture surrounding spondylus shells (you can find this episode and many more on the Marianas Variety website under the “Around the Islands” tab, or follow Around the Islands on Facebook and Instagram!). Check out the following excerpt and make sure to watch “What is Spondylus?” online for an in-depth look at the Marianas’ favorite shell!

Marianas Variety photo
Marianas Variety photo
Marianas Variety photo
Marianas Variety photo
Marianas Variety photo

Clarence Tenorio: I like it because of culture, it just represents the islands.

Analee Villagomez: For me when I wear this, it reminds me of who I am, what I am; my roots.

Frances Sablan: Receiving. I always am very appreciative. It makes him feel really important.

Jordan Monderen: It started with her cousin asking to buy one and then another friend asking like, “Hey, is this for sale?” So it was almost overnight that it turned from a hobby to a business.

Zenn Tomokane: Every single time I had this on my neck I’d look at it, I was just kind of like looking at the details of it, the structure of the shell. It had this shine to it. This uniqueness… I fell in love with the shell

Sophia Perez: Spondylus. It’s been used for jewelry and bartering in the Marianas for thousands of years. To this day. The iconic shells are commonly called -

Zenn Tomokane: -gold-

Austin Barcinas: Gold-

Jordan Monderen: Saipan gold.

Sophia Perez: But what is spondylus? And how and why did it come to play its role in today’s local culture?

David Benavente: All right, so what is spondylus? A spondylus is an invertebrate that lives in the marine environment. They’re bivalves, and bivalves are invertebrates that have two shells. So there’s one half and there’s another half. They’re also filter feeders, which means that they suck in water through parts of their shell, and it goes through a filter feeder system. And then those nutrients are processed, which helps them grow.

The biggest one I’ve seen was up in Maug. And it was about this big, almost the size of a volleyball.

Sophia Perez: But spondylus is more than just Chamorro gold. In fact, the brightly-colored bivalve can be found throughout the Pacific. There are also species endemic to some European coastal regions and the Gulf of Mexico. In Ecuador, archaeologists have found spondylus pendants and beads dating back to 3500 BC. And according to Francisco Pizarro’s expedition, the Incas valued spondylus shells higher than amber, emerald, silver, and even gold. The Quechua people called spondylus

“The Food of the Gods” and some archaeologists theorize that they may have eaten it to trigger hallucinogenic experiences.

It’s worth noting that the Quechua’s “Food of the Gods” is likely a different spondylus species than the shells we’re used to here in the Marianas. In fact, there are hundreds of different species of spondylus around the globe…

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