She Sells Seashells: Women and Mollusks in Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico



In this chapter, I examine seashells recovered from a 1985 archaeological study of Bahias de Huatulco, Mexico. I focus on both the primary and the secondary functions of the shells, describing their use as food, construction material, and an important dye source. I begin by discussing the shells in their local context and then later outline arguments both for and against shell trade inland. I ask, why are the shells here, and then, why these specific shells? In answering these questions, I investigate how these shells were used, the industries that they imply, and, finally, how women are necessarily implicated in processes of collection and production.

In Huatulco, Mexico, today no one claims that gender relations are static. In the past 23 years, Mexican government officials have converted the beachfront Zapotec pueblo at Santa Cruz Bay, Oaxaca, to an urban, elite tourist destination that still grows by eight percent per year (Ramon Sinovas, Director of FONATUR, personal communication, September 2007). Huts of palm frond and sheet metal that once sheltered residents have been replaced by government-constructed, concrete apartment complexes, four stories tall and located inland so as not to detract from the vistas of hotel windows. The introduction of piped water, electricity, and sewage systems has altered labor practices within the home, while paved roads, affordable internet, and migration patterns now alter communication and social interaction outside of the home. These changes reconfigure residents' domestic and economic networks and transform gender relations.

New employment opportunities, within a service sector that provides temporary and low-wage work, now differently prompt men and women to give unique form to their social and economic conditions. Predictably, women dominate back-hall positions—those less visible to consumers, such as kitchen work and housecleaning (for analyses of front- versus back-hall employment, see Portes and Stepick 1994). Women are also primary laborers in the informal economy, and they waitress in the lowest-paying of Huatulco restaurants. Generally, men lead tours—by boat, bus, bike, or by four-wheeler—and they assume the better-paying positions in hotels and restaurants. However, in the trendiest of Huatulco's bars and clubs today, punk twenty-somethings, looking to escape to the beach after receiving college educations in urban Mexico, now assume front-hall positions regardless of their gender identities. Youth, education or international experience, and the ability to perform identities as varied as punk and fresa (yuppie) now privilege a new group of Huatulco migrant laborers and translate to social capital that today trumps gender in the local economy.

Despite this contemporary reality, a singular discourse, reiterated by countless ethnographers, describes Huatulco's past. In this discourse, gender relations are rigid and unquestioned, women are without agency, and gender is all-defining: “Santa Cruz was a fisherman's village. Tio José was a fisherman, as were his father and brothers. They learned to fish, he says, from an old man from Xadani who fished in the Copalita river” (González 2002:42). The story is not always of Tio José, but its meaning is the same: Huatulco was a Zapotec fishing village, they say. It was quaint or primitive, depending on the objectives of the storyteller, but in either case, it was a place of weathered men who spent their days in small boats offshore and who, at the end of each day, returned to the wives raising their children (Call 2001; González 2002; Vigil 2001).1

The timeless images of Huatulco's fishing traditions evoked by ethnographers serve as forlorn reminders of the consequences of today's tourist takeover and of the expansion of modern global capitalism. These images challenge those who still hail tourism as an “industry without smokestacks,” as “a costless generator of wealth and well being” (for further critique, see Barkin 2002). But from this discourse, women are unjustifiably absent. The few sociocultural anthropologists in this region have been concerned primarily with land ownership and production. They have constructed household histories by talking to residents who are almost solely male and by summarizing the male-authored official documents maintained by the municipality (Duke 1990; González 2002; Madsen Camacho 1996).

Here, I complicate the descriptions of Huatulco's past that are based on such data by turning to the archaeological record. The findings of archaeologists Enrique Fernández Dávila and Susana Gómez Serafín (1988) not only suggest a diversity of industries in Huatulco but also hint at a once-booming dye industry requiring especially complex work processes. I use as my data set a list of shells that were collected from a single site in the excavation at Bahias de Huatulco in 1985 (Fernández and Gómez 1988). I then complement this with ethnographic data to create a thicker description of Huatulco, one in which both men and women were active participants in an economy that was never static.

In this chapter, I am inspired by the works of Margaret Conkey, Joan Gero, and Rosemary Joyce (Conkey and Gero 1997; Gero 1985; Gero and Conkey 1991; Joyce 2000, 2001), who repeatedly undermine androcentric works in which present-day gender stereotypes are naturalized and then read back into the past unproblematically. I am indebted to Cheryl Claassen (1991:276), who argues that shellfishing “provides an excellent starting point for a feminist perspective on culture” and who has produced several works to re-gender shellfishing as female and not gender neutral (Claassen 1991, 1998, 2005). Like Claassen, I challenge assumptions that gender roles are rigid and women have little agency. Finally, I am emboldened by Patty Jo Watson and Mary Kennedy (1991), who take as their point of departure in “The Development of Horticulture in the Eastern Woodlands of North America: Women's Role” the logical inconsistencies of analogies linking female to passive and male to active. Watson and Kennedy employ these simplistic gender stereotypes to argue that if women were home cooking while men were off hunting then women—in the absence of males—must have been the active agents in the development of agriculture. While decades of feminist thinkers have effectively undermined the conflations of female with passive and domestic, these continue to limit ethnographers' descriptions of Huatulco's past, just as Watson and Kennedy found in eastern North America. I argue that the shells recovered in the 1985 excavation imply a varied array of productive activities that would have incorporated men and women into complex labor processes. An analysis of the shells, therefore, will refute the simplistic though often applied model of men off fishing with passive wives at home.

An Overview of the Project Report

In 1985, the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Mexico (INAH), in association with Mexico's National Tourism Development Agency (FONATUR), initiated a project titled Bahias de Huatulco Salvage Archaeology (Figure 8.1). This occurred one year after the government began expropriating 32 kilometers of shoreline in the area and coincided with the first stages in the rapid development of an upscale tourism industry now located there. While the government agencies that funded the excavation are recognized in the project report, Huatulco native Patricio Martínez recalls pressures placed on these agencies by locals concerned that they would lose their past to the redevelopment efforts.2 Archaeologists Fernández and Gómez (1988:9), therefore, conducted their analysis both as an initial study of social organization during pre-Hispanic times in the Bahias de Huatulco region and as an attempt to record pre-Hispanic artifacts before the tourism to come destroyed such evidence.

Figure 8.1.

Bahias de Huatulco and surroundings.

Because of ongoing development and FONATUR's and investors' concerns that the archaeological project would interfere with tourists' visits, the archaeological study was necessarily limited in scope. Approximately two hundred square kilometers in the area were photographed and 84 sites were identified for possible excavation; these were sites that would not threaten the tourism infrastructure. Sixty percent of these were eventually examined on the surface, and sites that suggested the highest levels of social interaction were dug to the bedrock in units of one square meter following natural stratigraphy (Fernández and Gómez 1988:9–10). The dense vegetation and rocky shores that once made living in much of the coastal region difficult made excavation especially so.

Fernández and Gómez (1988) use historical records, past literature, and their preliminary examination of the region to suggest that initial settlement in Huatulco dates to Early to Late Postclassic times, between approximately 1000 c.e. and 1525 c.e. However, artifacts gathered in more recent studies—part of an ongoing search for the ruins that could lure ever more tourists to Huatulco—suggest, instead, occupation of the region during the Formative era, as early as 400 or 500 b.c.e. and perhaps earlier (Raul Matadamas, personal communication, July 2006). These earliest residents of Huatulco may have descended from an inland community in the Sierra Madre mountains of Oaxaca, but more probably this initial population would have been a colony from one of the urban centers in the Rio Verde Valley or Tehuantepec, both of which had been settled since Early Preclassic times and were under the rule of powerful leaders (Fernández and Gómez 1988:7).

In either case, it appears that the Postclassic residents of Huatulco were dominated by regional powers located elsewhere. Alicia González (2002:20) has argued that Huatulqueños once paid tribute to the Mixtecs and later, in the century before Spanish arrival, were conquered by the Aztecs. Fernández and Gómez (1988:13) suggest that though Aztec pressure forced the contraction of the Mixtec empire in the region, the Mixtecs remained in control of the area into colonial times. Decades earlier, Peter Gerhard (1960:32–35) wrote that the Chontales may have been the predominant group in the region in pre-Hispanic times, noting that the Nahua settled to the west while a small Zapotecan state was located to the northeast; both of these, Gerhard argued, paid tribute to the Mixtec king, Tututepec. To make sense out of such varied conjectures, the present head of Huatulco archaeology, Raul Matadamas (personal communication, July 2006), argues that the Spanish who first arrived in Huatulco found a settlement of migrants, containing a mixture of people and of languages.

Whatever the origins and identities of Huatulco's pre-Hispanic residents, I am concerned with what the residents might have been doing during Postclassic times, as indicated by Fernández and Gómez's archaeological data. I take particular interest in a single site from the project report, Site 69, which is located on the highest point of the peninsula that separates Bahia de Santa Cruz, Huatulco, from Bahia de Chahué (Fernández and Gómez 1988:131) (Figure 8.2). Here the land was rocky and had been leveled with a large quantity of mollusk shells: over 21 thousand were recovered from the 19 excavation units. Fernández and Gómez (1988:105–120) identify these shells by species and count. Evidence of craft-working or other modification is not documented in the site report, and the shells have not been dated, nor have the levels at which they were found been documented (Fernández and Gómez 1988).

Figure 8.2.

Map of Site 69. From Enrique Fernández Dávila and Susana Gómez Serafín, 1988. Arqueología de Huatulco, Oaxaca: Memoria de la Primera Temporada de Campo del Proyecto Arqueológico Bahías de Huatulco. Roma, México: INAH.

Of interest, though, is that while Donald Brockington and Robert Long (1974:19) described the slopes of Huatulco's primary port, Bahia Santa Cruz, as “covered with tremendous quantities of clam shells, all native to the beaches” in an earlier project along Oaxaca's coast and while Fernández and Gómez (1988:11) write that gathering and consuming mollusks was one of the two most important economic activities in the region, Site 69 is, in fact, the only site in the 1988 project report at which shells were recorded. Undoubtedly, the pervasiveness of shell in the coastal region favors a tendency to take for granted the presence of shell in many of the excavated sites. The inclusion of shells into descriptions of Site 69, therefore, suggests at the very least their uniqueness in this particular context.

Shells at Site 69 are notable both for their bulk and for their apparent use in the construction of foundations for living quarters. On top of these shells there is evidence that five rooms were constructed, covering an area of 40 meters by 30 meters. The surface materials collected at this site were present in light to moderate concentrations and include four of the five metates recovered in the project, four of the 13 machacadores (each of the others was found individually across the various sites), and a single pulidor, one of six recovered.3 Given these artifacts, Fernández and Gómez (1988:132–133) suggest that the site served as a local center. I now describe the shells recovered in the project before returning to examine this suggestion along with other plausible shell functions.

Huatulco Shells and the Labor of Collection

With a single exception, noted below, the ratios of shell types in the various pits at Site 69 do not appear to be significantly different; thus I have chosen to focus here on overall shell counts at the site. I will discuss those shells that were most common in addition to those with unique properties that seem to suggest economic or symbolic value, rather than focusing on each of the 24 genera of pelecypods and gastropods that were identified.4 Most common, making up 90.5 percent of all shells recovered at Site 69, is the species Codakia orbicularis, also called Pacific Tiger. This clam is common to the coasts of Oaxaca, as it is throughout the world, in shallow waters and is found burrowed in sand and sometimes mud, where it can be dug out with a stick or other tool at low tide (Abbott 1961:154–155; Dance 1971:62; Keen 1958:98; Morris 1951:58). The shell of this clam is approximately three inches long, white with a pinkish border on its inside margins. Large, solid, and only slightly inflated, it is perhaps better suited to creating a foundation upon which to build than smaller pelecypods and the airier gastropods. In addition, this clam has served, historically, as an important source of food in the region.

The second most common genus, though making up only two percent of total shells found at the site, is Ostrea. This oyster, not defined any more specifically in the site report, is today a part of local diets. It is found in water from the shoreline to 35 meters deep, cemented to hard substrates, and is easily collected by being plucked by hand from shallow water or when the tide is out (Keen 1958:64–65; Morris 1951:21). It is noteworthy that, at Site 69, the Ostrea was the only shell that did not appear randomly dispersed across the pits examined; over 50 percent of these shells were found in a single pit. This suggests that the shellfish were repeatedly used and discarded in a single location, such as a kitchen, which then might support the common assumption that Ostrea was used as food in the Postclassic period just as it is today.

The third most common shell recovered from Site 69 is Megapitaria aurantiaca. Similar to Codakia orbicularis, this is a clam, up to four inches in diameter, that burrows into sand and mud. It is found at extremely low water levels and is dug out with a stick or tool in the same manner that the Codakia is (Keen 1958:134). The shell of this mollusk is large and thick and is also conducive to filling in the rocky terrain to create a foundation on which to build. Field guides suggest that while Megapitaria is common to the Oaxaca region, it is less common than the Codakia; this alone may explain its relatively infrequent use.

The small gastropod Nerita peloronta, the fourth most common shell recovered from the excavation units, and Strombus (or Conch), very poorly represented, are two of three mollusk genera from Site 69 that are mentioned in Gary Feinman and Linda Nicholas's (1995) work on shell production in Ejutla. Both of these gastropods are found intertidally on rocks and are common on the shores of Huatulco (Abbott 1961:66; Dance 1971:106–107; González 2002; Keen 1958:265, 336). In Ejutla, Nerita was present in low quantities and was “generally perforated and strung whole” (Feinman and Nicholas 1995:20) in craft production. The Conch, far more common in Ejutla than at Site 69, was cut and shaped to make ornaments at the craft production center. While there is no evidence of shell craft production in the site report of the Bahias de Huatulco excavation, it may be noteworthy that densities of the Nerita and Conch in Huatulco are inversely proportionate to those same shell densities in Ejutla. Though the existence of trade routes inland from Huatulco in the Postclassic is debated today, if there was a demand for Conch shells inland, we might expect to find, as we in fact do, fewer of these shells in their native habitat. A lack of demand for the Nerita, similarly, might explain greater quantities of the shell in indigenous contexts.

Another mollusk type that is present both at Huatulco Site 69 and in Ejutla is Thais. The authors of field guides and conchology books sometimes conflate Thais with another genus found at Site 69, Murex, and with a third, Púrpura, placing them in the single category “dye shellfish.” These authors have argued that different genus names have been applied to the same shellfish at varying times so that the construction of a single category is necessary; meanwhile ethnographers and locals continue to use the label Caracol Púrpura to describe the dye shellfish in almost all cases. To avoid the complications that arise from these inconsistencies, I also use the label Caracol Púrpura in a discussion that is relevant to both the Thais and the Murex genera. To distinguish these two, I note only that the Murex occurs five times more frequently than the Thais at Site 69, according to the project report.

Caracol Púrpura is found at the shoreline clinging to rocks (Keen 1958:370, 376–377). While these shells make up .4 percent of the shells retrieved at Site 69, this is, perhaps, due to extraction methods that do not create shell refuse, and thus I use the presence of this mollusk—minor though notable—to initiate discussion of a dye industry, dependent on the shellfish, that once dominated the coasts of Oaxaca. There are two reasons to believe that this mollusk would have been especially common in Huatulco during the Postclassic period. First, many field guides state that where there is a rock there is a Púrpura, and Huatulco is especially notable for its rocky coastline. Second, these mollusks are prominent in both ethnohistoric and ethnographic records from the region: scholars document women of the past and present who migrated to Huatulco annually, remaining for two-week periods to collect these shellfish from the shores (González 2002; Nuttall 1909; Turok 1988).

The six shell types described above account for 94.4 percent of all the shells collected from Site 69. They are each plucked by hand from sand and rocks, or sticks and other tools are used to extract the mollusks one by one. In addition, they are each found intertidally—not in a water zone where fishermen would be canoeing and pursuing fish. This means the shellfishing that was done in the region was labor intensive and could not have been conducted alongside deeper sea fishing. It would have demanded its own laborers or that laborers split time between shallow- and deep-water regions. If we assume rigid gender relations and the now commodified tales that depict men as fishermen who spent their days in boats away at sea, then only the women—and perhaps, too, children—would have been present in shallow-water regions to carry out the labor of shellfishing. While such an argument is simplistic, an examination of the primary and secondary functions of the shells described here and discussion of the industries they imply only further implicate women in processes of shell collection and production. In what follows, I describe the use of shells as food, bait, construction material, and an important dye source. I hypothesize various purposes for the structures that were built on top of the shells and recount the debate over trade from the region, all the while locating women at the center of my discussion.

Shell Function

Thirty-five-year-old Huatulco native Patricio Martínez is quick to suggest that the site would have been a garbage dump of sorts. “You know what they found?” he asks rhetorically, “All kinds of clam shells,” and with his hands he demonstrates the size of the Codakia orbicularis. Then he describes the process of salting clams, just as one would salt other meats, to preserve them.

Sisters Dalila, Raquel, and Francisca, who now staff a restaurant-bar just off of Huatulco's main square and whose family is from the small community of Ciruelos, Pochutla, 25 minutes away, turn rapidly in our conversation to note the clams' value as a food. These young women are in their late teens and early twenties and especially matter-of-fact: “They're for selling and to eat—they're edible,” they tell me together when I ask what you do with them. Vendedores ambulantes, walking venders or peddlers, today sell almeja up and down the beaches to tourists seated in oceanfront restaurants, making selling clams as a food now more important than eating them for a number of Huatulco residents. Nevertheless, more recent Huatulco resident Ana Hernández lists ways to prepare them: “You put them in a paella with rice—you put chicken and pork and salchicha and shrimp … or you put them in sopa de mariscos, seafood cocktail, caldo de amejas.”

No doubt the residents of early Huatulco were collecting clams, bringing them to shore to be preserved, and then moving inland with the meat while the shells were left behind. Field guides suggest that at least the Codakia (clam), Ostrea (oyster), and Megapitaria (clam), the three most common shells recovered from Site 69, were used as food by local populations, though only the oysters seem to have been traded as a food and highly valued. The mollusks would not have been used as the primary source of food; such a diet is too high in protein and would lead to human illness (Claassen 1998:183), but as each mollusk is a source of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and essential minerals, it seems probable that these animals, obtained at the cost of relatively little human energy, would have been a part of the diet.

While Cheryl Claassen has challenged assumptions that shellfish are used solely for food, claiming that “in fishing societies … there is an important place for shellfish as bait” (Claassen 1991:276), there is little evidence of such a function in Huatulco. Today fishermen rely on shrimp and crab when fishing for bottom feeders, and they use a small fish, balyhoo, for other types of fishing (Patricio Martínez). And while Fernández and Gómez (1988) note that shells are frequently used to construct pins or needles, punches, fishhooks, and lures—all of which might suggest a method of fishing that mandated bait—there is no evidence of such tools at Site 69. Though the spears and harpoons that might confirm a fishing method without bait are also lacking, local residents continue to imagine their fishermen ancestors as hunting fish with such weapons. Given these arguments together, it seems most probable that the primary function of mollusks represented at Site 69 was food.

If this is so, even the androcentrics might argue that this implicates women in work processes. Yes, women still use mollusks in their cooking, explains Patricio, who maintains an all-female cooking staff at his Playa Maguey restaurant. “It's called ceviche,” he says with a smile; it is a dish particularly popular among Huatulco tourists today. And if there were a permanent settlement at Site 69, yes, probably the women would have been cooking, Patricio confirms, though he goes on to say that if the settlement were temporary or perhaps seasonal, no doubt men, women, and children would all have been required to complete collection and extraction more rapidly.5

Both Patricio and another Huatulco native, Arcenio Basa, recall a time, 20 to 30 years ago, when Santa Cruz Bay, the shallowest of the Huatulco bays, was still filled with mollusks that were easily obtained by those willing to wade out into the tides and to dig them out with their foot or a small stick. This is not the case today. “My brother goes out nadando, swimming, for all types of mollusks now,” Arcenio tells me, because there are none in the shallow waters anymore. He says this is because too many were collected in the earlier days, and there was no protection for them. Patricio adds that construction of the cruise ship port at Santa Cruz, completed in 2003, is probably also partly to blame. Regardless of cause—and despite the continued ability of many local women to cite multiple recipes containing shellfish—mollusks are no longer a major part of local diets. Nevertheless, it seems probable they once were.

“Santa Cruz and Organo were two of the only beaches where you could find clams,” Patricio informs me, giving even greater strength to his argument that Site 69 is the refuse site for a community extracting clams for food. The use of shells as landfill that is proposed by Fernández and Gómez (1988) in their analysis of the site is, therefore, most likely a secondary function. This is especially probable given that the shells were recovered disarticulated. Claassen (2005) has found, elsewhere, piled shells still articulated and has argued that these shells were intentionally deposited as they were recovered. Here I contend that the meat of the clam was extracted as food and then the remaining shell was piled at Site 69. The shore was rocky, the people wanted to build, and they filled the gaps among the rocks with leftover shells, as Fernández and Gómez seem to suggest.

The Codakia, the most frequently occurring genus at the site, and the Megapitaria, third most frequently occurring, are large and sturdy clam shells, well suited to filling in the rocky peninsula. Their use as food would have motivated their collection, but also their shell size would have meant that fewer needed to be used in construction, while their shell strength would have made a solid foundation on which to build. While the collection and cleaning of shellfish is not particularly labor intensive, hauling the shells to the point where Site 69 is located may have intensified the workload enough either to implicate both genders in this process or to have rearranged relationships between gender and work. In either case, this merits further investigation.

Locating this pile on the peninsula alongside Santa Cruz Bay makes sense if in the Postclassic, as in the 1970s and 1980s, Santa Cruz was one of two bays where mollusks were particularly common. But this does not yet explain why the shells were recovered from the highest point on the peninsula, one of the highest points in all of the Bahias de Huatulco area. Tourists now take taxis to the top, to where Site 69 once sat, which is today called Punta Santa Cruz, for one of the best vistas of Huatulco: a view overlooking the still fairly new cruise ship port. Imagining Huatulqueños hiking the hill to deposit their refuse is difficult at best.

But if the site is not a refuse dump, what other purpose might it have fulfilled? Perhaps the shells were deposited at the highest point to construct a spiritual center of sorts (Orr 1996). Matadamas (personal communication, July 2006) describes the ritual importance of such locations from the highest point of the archaeological site at La Bocana, four bays down the coast, overlooking the sea, and situated much the same as Site 69 in Santa Cruz once was. He imagines sacrifices to the sea that could have been made easily from such points and which would have been especially important to communities as heavily dependent on marine products as those on the coasts of Oaxaca appear to have been.

Adding weight to arguments that such a site would have served as a spiritual center is the extensive scholarship on the symbolic value of shells, which have been associated with fertility, eternal life, capital and vision in the afterlife, and prowess in battle (Sheets 1974:222). My three sister informants from the restaurant, Dalila, Raquel, and Francisca, laughed often while explaining to me that many people in Huatulco—though men in particular—use the clams we were discussing as an aphrodisiac. Other scholars suggest that shells are connected with royalty, protection from evil, and religion (Gerhard 1960:32–35, 1993:123–126; Naegel 2004). Nevertheless, there is little else to suggest a relationship between shells and spirituality at the Huatulco site. The five foundations uncovered over a space of 40 meters by 30 meters do not provide evidence of any obvious spiritual function. Also, Huatulco residents quickly dismiss such a suggestion. Without detailed knowledge of the spiritual value of shellfish, it is difficult to understand what role women may have played in such ritual matters. I merely note that this may be worth exploring in the future.

As a second possibility, perhaps these shells were deposited on a peninsula at its highest point to stabilize structures that were used as watchtowers. From such a vantage point, residents would have been able to oversee both fishing and shellfishing activities in the two bays. They would have been able to observe oncoming storms and other encouraging or prohibitive weather patterns and to coordinate the activities that were occurring in both bays and along their shores. In addition, the white color of the most commonly used seashells could reflect the sun or moon and perhaps provided a guide for fishermen out at sea and returning home. Matadamas (personal communication, July 2006) made a similar argument for the function of the flat stone that stands at the top of the La Bocana site. Might such natural constructions stand as predecessors to the lighthouse now at the punta del faro? If so, who maintained these sites? The many accounts of Huatulco's past—in which the men are depicted as always at sea, always off fishing—make it easy to suggest that the women, and perhaps children, would have been the only ones ashore to keep an eye on weather patterns or to coordinate activities from this visible point.

Matadamas (personal communication, July 2006) also describes the use of shell mixed with water and sand to create a concrete of sorts, one he has found stuccoing walls at the nearby La Bocana site. Perhaps the shells were amassed to be used as building materials when construction projects were under way. An androcentric might contend that the heavy lifting of wood and stone would have precluded women from some processes of construction—this, of course, ignores a reality in which women worked with metates of four kilograms or more for extensive periods and conducted other strength-demanding labor both within and beyond the household. However, even the androcentric would have to agree that it would have been economically rational for women to perform duties that complemented the heavy lifting, such as hauling loads of shell, creating the stuccolike epoxy for which they were used, and slathering the buildings after the walls had been stacked.

Púrpura Dye Industry

If, in the Postclassic era, Huatulco was a community of fishermen and fisherwomen collecting and processing not only the fish recalled in modern discourse but also the mollusks evinced at Site 69—their meat to be used as food and their shells to be used, perhaps, in construction—there are many reasons to believe that in this same period Huatulco was also an important center of mollusk dye production. The Caracol Púrpura found at Site 69 secretes a chemical stain ranging from dull red to violet (Sheets 1974:221) that has been used as a dye since at least 1600 b.c.e. in Europe. This dye industry has long played a significant role in Mexican coastal economies, especially in what is today the state of Oaxaca (Hamnett 1971), and Huatulco, in particular, might have been especially active in this púrpura dye industry, given both its rocky coastline and a series of ethnographic accounts that describe the importance of such industry in the region in more recent times.

In 1974, Elva Sheets wrote, “No matter where in the world I have searched, it seemed that although nothing else could be found, if there was a rock anywhere in sight for it to cling to, the Thais [Púrpura] and its family would be waiting to greet me” (Sheets 1974:158). Sheets suggests that rocky shores, including those of Huatulco, are overrun with these mollusks (see also Keen 1958:370). Indeed, a 1909 report on Púrpura shellfish stated that in the Huamelula area the shellfish had become so scarce that “fishermen were often obliged to proceed as far north as Huatulco [100 miles away] to fill their orders and dye the thread entrusted to them” (Nuttall 1909:370).

Additionally, Mixtec and Zapotec women from the towns surrounding Huatulco, as well as others from the highlands, continue to migrate to the region to spend several weeks in the dry season each year extracting these snails from the cliffs when the tides are out (González 2002:51, 55–57; Naegel 2004; Nuttall 1909:368; Turok 1988). Given these observations, it seems highly likely that the Púrpura existed in abundance along the coasts of Huatulco during the Postclassic times. The modern-day migration of women from surrounding communities to Huatulco specifically, as opposed to other neighboring areas, supports a hypothesis that Huatulco is not only well suited but also, perhaps, best suited to this industry. And thus, it seems probable that the community in Postclassic Huatulco would have invested resources in this industry. This, in turn, may have had important consequences regarding women's activity in the region.

Anthropologists documenting the women who collect the shells today conclude with phrases such as: “Mixtec women from the north and Chontales from farther south have valued this dye for hundreds, and probably thousands, of years” (González 2002:51), creating a sense of timelessness and arguing that the craft existed in the New World long before the arrival of the Spanish. These scholars cite pre-Columbian textiles with bluish stripes recovered in Peru (Nuttall 1909:377; Turok 1988:22), or they argue that if the Spanish had introduced the Púrpura dye craft, that introduction would have been on the rocky islands and coasts of the Caribbean Sea not on the Pacific coasts of Oaxaca (Nuttall 1909:376). After extensive research into the industry, Marta Turok (1988:21–22) concludes that not only did the Púrpura dye industry exist before the arrival of the Spanish but also, in fact, the New World Púrpura dye industry expanded independent of and long before Old World demand.

Nevertheless, several passages in conchology books continue to suggest that the activity of extracting dye from the mollusks was brought to the New World by the Spanish and that Spanish ships traveled along coasts looking for rocky shores where they could find an abundance of the Púrpura (Sheets 1974:221–222). Conchologist Ludwig Naegel (2004:212), noting written evidence of the use of shellfish purple from Central America dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, argues that evidence before this time is scarce and unconvincing. Textiles do not preserve well in the subtropical climate, and the fact that the dye can be harvested from live shellfish that are then returned to the water means that shell middens are not necessarily a by-product of the craft (Naegel 2004:212).

Also complicating my discussion of the use of mollusks as a purple dye is the use of the cochineal bug as a purple dye in this same region. Ronald Spores (1984:128) describes cochineal as pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica's most valued dye, long used by the Mixtecs but produced at drastically greater rates after a boom in European demand in the 16th century. Throughout this colonial period, the “royal purple” dye and dyed clothes that were made, by law, from the Púrpura mollusk were also being exported from Huatulco to South America and ultimately to Europe and Asia, where market demand sustained exorbitant prices for this, the “true” royal purple (Cole 1686:8; Nuttall 1909:372, 376; Sheets 1974:144). This coincidence of the two purple dye industries has resulted in these two distinct industries' conflation into a single “purple dye industry” that boomed in Mexico in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Although the two dyes produce similar outcomes, the two dye crafts are very different. The process of obtaining mollusk-derived dye is even more labor intensive than that of obtaining dye from the cochineal. The mollusks, once collected, would have been crushed, boiled, or “tickled”—an alternative means of provoking the mollusks to secrete their dye—and this dye would then have to be applied to the textiles, usually directly (Cole 1686:2–4; Keen 1958:376; Naegel 2004; Nuttall 1909:369).6 Twelve thousand mollusks secrete approximately 1.4 grams of pigment, which would color only a few yards of cotton cloth (Naegel 2004; Nuttall 1909:374)—this was never a supplemental or secondary craft; it commands much time and effort. And that the craft was not eliminated by the more efficient cochineal dye craft suggests, then, that the outcomes of the two dye processes are not equivalent (González 2002:51, 55–57).

Púrpura dye production was not likely a stable industry. It would have been especially susceptible to environmental and climatic conditions that determined the availability of the mollusks as well as to local and nonlocal demand that would have determined the opportunity costs of production—or of nonproduction. Textile supply, too, would have affected dye production. Elizabeth Brumfiel (2006) has described the expansion of cloth production in Postclassic Mesoamerica, suggested by an increase in spindle whorls especially in the homes of commoners, following changes in social rules for who was allowed to weave. In explaining the shift in production, Brumfiel writes:

As commercial activity increased, cloth was transformed from an inalienable good into a commodity. In the anonymity of the market system, cloth produced by commoners could be passed off as the same product as cloth produced by elites. Market exchange would have encouraged commoner women to engage in cloth production to support themselves and their families through spinning and weaving, as they did on the eve of Spanish conquest. [Brumfiel 2006:863]

Imagining, then, that there was a dye industry in Huatulco, it seems likely that such expansion in the textile industry would have increased production of dye and dyed cloth. And if men were off fishing, as so many ethnographers assume, it seems probable that such changes would have reconfigured women's roles most drastically. Industry growth would have mandated far greater commitment from these women dyers, undoubtedly altering their positions within and relationships to the household, while the new social rules for who could (or should) produce would have shaped social networks and community interaction. A newly booming industry might also have attracted migrant laborers to further diversify the already multicultural region. And even children might have been implicated in work processes as production expanded.

We need to ask not only, “What is being given up or replaced by those who engage in the dye craft?” but also, “How has this craft altered through time?” in order to understand the significance of the Púrpura dye industry. As cloth was commodified, dyeing practices may have become more mundane, or dyes might have been used to infuse certain cloth with status that was no longer inherent in its weaving. Brumfiel (2006) notes that embroidery and other techniques were adopted by the elite class to elaborate ever more common cloth. Labor processes and the gendered or classed division of labor in Huatulco would have changed, just as they were changing at the centers of cloth production described by Brumfiel.

Trading in Huatulco

Hypothesized expansion of production in an industry as specialized as the Púrpura dye industry necessitates further hypothesis of a booming trading industry, one that would disseminate the dyes along with other coastal goods.7 The raw materials, food products, and artifacts from the Pacific coast found at pre-Hispanic sites in the Valley of Oaxaca and elsewhere in the regions' highlands suggest trade and exchange routes dating back to the Early Formative period (Feinman and Nicholas 1993). While these exchanges were once thought to precede settlement in Huatulco during the Classic or Postclassic period (Brockington and Long 1974:17–19; Fernández and Gómez 1988) so that the urban centers of Tehuantepec or the lower Rio Verde Valley would have been the likely sources of highland shell, this is no longer clear.

Many scholars continue to argue that there is little reason to believe that shell products found inland originated in Huatulco specifically. A major port was located at Huatulco in the Postclassic period, a port that continued in prominence after the Spanish arrived and until a roadway from Mexico City to Acapulco allowed the Acapulco port to surpass that at Huatulco in importance (Hassig 1985:168). Yet this port was used for the transport of goods north and south along the coastline, linking Peru to North America, and does not necessarily imply a flow of goods inland. Feinman and Nicholas (1993, 1995, 2000, 2004a, 2004b), who have done extensive work on shell use in household craft and ornament manufacture in central Oaxaca, suggest only that the shells being worked in the Ejutla Valley are from the Pacific coast of Oaxaca. In Huatulco—separated from the rest of Mexico by the formidable Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range and composed of rocky shorelines that made communication among regions even within Huatulco problematic—both coordinating shell collection and craft and transporting products through the mountain range would have been especially difficult. Feinman and Nicholas (1993, 1995, 2000) and Zeitlin and Joyce (1999; see also Joyce 1991 and Zeitlin 1990) suggest, instead, that coastal sites to the north and south of Huatulco may have been the primary sources of the coastal goods at inland settlements.

Nevertheless, several scholars argue adamantly that Huatulco did in fact play a role in these early exchanges and their position is strengthened by the new evidence of Formative settlement at the La Bocana site (Matadamas, personal communication, July 2006). Cultural anthropologist Alicia González suggests that Huatulco shells “were traded with inlanders who used them as inlay, for trade, in their architecture, and in many other ways. They were used as vessels, as hachas (axes), made into spoons and implements for fishing, used for ornamentation, for beading, and for a host of other things” (González 2002:51). Fernández and Gómez (1988:7) contend that the presence of nonlocal basalt and obsidian indicates exchange, while conjecturing that residents were processing salt (from the sea) and dye (from the Púrpura) for export, perhaps as tribute. Matadamas (personal communication, July 2006) has hiked the Copalita River inland on repeated 30-day treks, and he is convinced that there is evidence of communities—house structures and other buildings—along the route, which not only suggests trade but also suggests that the river passage inland was a major trade route.

If such trade was occurring, it would have had a significant impact on gender relations in the region, just as do international migration flows today. In a study of migration out of Ecuador, Jason Pribilsky (2007) has complicated assumptions that migrated men are absent from their families' lives, arguing that the men in his study continue to perform roles as fathers and husbands through the exchange of gifts and commodities. Nevertheless, this leaves women conducting the work of daily life and sustaining communities largely in the absence of their male partners. Similarly, perhaps, if major trade routes existed in Postclassic Huatulco, women might have been left largely in charge of sustaining life on a day-to-day basis in the region, at least at certain times of the year. Or, following Shawn Kanaiaupuni (2000), we might challenge arguments that women are more strongly tied to kin and place and thus are less likely actors in spheres of migration or long-distance trade. Perhaps women were also trekking inland to engage in trade.


I come to this project as a feminist ethnographer looking to diversify my training and also to uncover the androcentrism within my own research. In this chapter I am intrigued by many archaeological questions that remain unanswered, and I have felt it necessary to include several of them. But, ultimately, I have turned my attention to what we can know. As we begin to ask about the past industries of Huatulco, we must ask how each of our findings might create new roles for the women in Huatulco, beyond that of fisherman's wife. Given the diversity of industries and of the work processes within each industry, it seems as unlikely that men were always off fishing, always at sea, as it does that women were uninvolved in local economic activities. If Site 69 was a ritual center or a watchtower, might this mean that women were conducting ceremonies or overseeing fishing activities from above? If mollusks were food or produced dye, might women be the primary laborers in these industries? And how would inland trade alter women's movements or responsibilities?

I rely on the archaeological findings of Fernández and Gómez (1988) to pose such questions, in an attempt to locate women within the historic political economy of Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico. My bottom line is that it seems improbable that women were hanging out in their huts of palm on the beaches while the men were fishing, clamming, performing rituals, overseeing water activities, extracting dye, dyeing, trading, and so on and so forth. And if men were fishing from boats offshore as so many ethnographers have assumed, it seems highly likely that the women would be doing the shellfishing closer to land—and perhaps performing rituals, overseeing water activities, extracting dye, dyeing, and trading as well. In so many ethnographies, the men are depicted as always at sea, always off fishing, because fishing, it is assumed, is the only “real” work to be done in Huatulco. Yet all of the shells from Site 69 that I have discussed above are found intertidally, not in a water zone where fishermen would be canoeing and pursuing fish. Thus, building on the works of past ethnographers but recognizing the diversity of industries in the region, it is easy to suggest that the women must be involved in a complex and changing set of activities.

Predictably, the site I utilize in this chapter is now below a series of elite houses, villas, and condominiums. Hotels reached full occupancy in the spring 2006 high season for the first time in Huatulco's history and as investment into the area appears increasingly risk free, affluent outsiders are flooding in once again, bringing new construction and new hope to an economy that has disappointed many over the past two decades. Husbands and wives in the region are, today, running businesses together—cafes, restaurants, bars, hotels—because “that's how it is here,” Patricio explains. And yet, rates of divorce and separation are up, above those at the national level, and single motherhood is commonplace, so that women are often working to support families independent of husbands or other male family members. Housework, today, can be outsourced: to laundries that are more affordable than washing machines, to food stands that vend tacos and tamales below market rates. And while this has not yet brought gender equity to Huatulco, I now work alongside a team of male waiters and a barman intent on proving to me that they are not machos, that in fact they met their wives while working in restaurants alongside of them and that they do not feel bad when their wives sometimes earn more than they do.

Gender relations in Huatulco continue to shift, as they always have, shaped by industries that vary and economies that evolve. A past of rigid gender roles and passive women is easily commodified in the tourism venture that has overtaken Huatulco, and there are many who will leave with photographs of weathered old men in boats offshore just as the ethnographers describe—though today these men are far more likely to be taking tourists out for tours of the bays than they are to be fishing. This depiction persists because it is of an imagined past, yet one that makes little sense given the diversity of industry and the complexity of work processes in Huatulco that must have shifted through time. One needs only a pile of shells to begin to unravel such history.


  • 1

    See also the endless array of tour and hotel propaganda turned up by any internet search of Huatulco.

  • 2

    Patricio Martínez was one of my key informants during fieldwork that took place in Huatulco, Oaxaca, Mexico, from July through September 2006. The information presented in this chapter was garnered through face-to-face conversations with Patricio during this time.
    Arcenio Basa, who appears later in this chapter, was another informant from that fieldwork. My encounters with the sisters Dalila, Raquel, and Francisca and with Ana Hernández took place during the 2007 field season.

  • 3

    A metate is a base stone upon which corn and other foods are ground using a mano; a machacador is a pestle or similar instrument used for pounding; a pulidor is an instrument used to polish stones or other material.

  • 4

    Identified species include Codakia orbicularis, Trachycardium isocardia, Laevicardium robustum, Carditamera floridiana, Cardium sp., Megapitaria aurantiaca, Ostrea sp., Arca imbricata, Arca sp., Concha nacar, Pecten sp., Lucapinella limatula, Crucibulum scutellatum, Nerita peloronta, Murex sp., Terebra sp., Turritella sp., Strombus gigas, Strombus granulatas, Strombus sp., Conus sp., Tonicella lineata, Thais haemastoma, and Dentalium sp. (Fernández and Gómez 1988:119).

  • 5

    I mean not to read the present back onto the past by using contemporary ethnography but rather to take seriously the interpretations of archaeological sites posed by those who hail from the region.

  • 6

    The crushing of shells or tickling of mollusks that are then replaced to be harvested another year might explain the lack of Murex shells at Site 69 although they are in the region.

  • 7

    Ultimately, the only reliable method to determine the origin of inland shells is to conduct a thorough study of the coasts of Oaxaca, documenting which mollusks are found where in what seasons (Gary Feinman, personal communication, February 2006). Comparative study between the shells recovered in Ejutla and those from Huatulco should also be pursued, and relationships among shell densities in the regions should be explored in an attempt to expose the market forces that may have existed. For example, might demand for the Conch in craft production inland make its use as a foundation material along the coast far less likely? Finding consistencies and disparities in the use of shell within these neighboring sites would shed light not only on the movement of shell between groups but also on the groups themselves, their cultural preferences, and their opportunity-cost evaluations. But until such projects have been carried out, we must rely on field guides that offer rough estimates of the global regions in which certain mollusk species may be found (Dance 1990; Keen 1958; Keen and Coan 1974; Sheets 1974). Often a field guide's “region” spans 60 degrees of latitude or more; California through Peru boast the same mollusks. These rough estimates are of little use to an archaeologist who needs to determine whether shells are from point A or from point B, 161 kilometers down the coast. Thus, here I merely describe both sides of the argument over trade in Huatulco.