A review: The History of Pearls in the Gulf of California, Mexico
By Douglas McLaurin-Moreno
By Douglas McLaurin-Moreno
Since unrecorded time, man has obtained many bounties from the world’s oceans: food, shells, corals, sponges, seaweeds, and the most desirable of all of these were the beautiful mother-pf-pearl shells and their valuable treasure, Pearls.
Mexico has four species of pearl oysters inhabiting its coasts, two -the larger sized- on the Pacific side: the Panamic Black Lip oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica) and the Rainbow Lip oyster (Pteria sterna). On the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea we can find the smaller Mother-of-pearl oyster (Pinctada imbricata) and Atlantic Winged oyster (Pteria colymbus). There are many other pearls occurring in Mexico, such as conch pearls (Lobatus=Strombus gigas), pen shell pearls (several species of the Pinna and Atrina genus), scallops (genus Nodipecten and Spondylus) and Abalone (several species of Haliotis), as well as from many more species of clams and gastropods, but pearl oysters of the Pteriidae family will be the sole focus of this document.
Figure 1: The “Panamic Black Lip pearl oyster” (Pinctada mazatlanica), the main species utilized in Mexico for pearl production and pearl fisheries during the Pre-Columbian, Colonial and Pre-Revolutionary periods of Mexico. This species can attain a maximum diameter of 20 cm.
Figure 2: The “Rainbow Lip pearl oyster” (Pteria sterna), the main species utilized in Mexico for cultured pearl production and in the highly successful pearl fisheries of the Colonial period of Lower California, Mexico. This species can attain a maximum diameter of 14 cm.
In Mexico, the native pearl fisheries can be dated as far back as 500 to 1400 C.E. Fishing was practiced by many native tribes of the States that surround the Gulf of California and Mexico’s Pacific coast such as the Seri (or Kuum Kaak), Yoheme (Yaqui and Mayo) and Pericú Indian Nations. These ancient pearl fisheries were undertaken out of hunger, fortunate byproducts being the recovery of shells and pearls.
Figure 3: Map of Mexico showing places discussed in this document, as well as the area of influence of the Mexica (Aztec) and Maya Empires, as well as the pre-Columbian distribution of the Yaqui and Seri Indian nations. The Mayan and Mexica Empires did not co-exist in time, hence the overlap.
Excavations completed inside Tenochtitlan’s (today, Mexico City) Main Temple (Templo Mayor) of the Mexica or Aztec empire revealed the high appreciation that this culture had for the mother of pearl shells from the Pacific Ocean. These shells were used either as a whole or as pectorals, or in carved zoomorphic figurines that the Aztecs used in their religious rituals.
Figure 4: Mask of a Mexica (Aztec) “Coyote Warrior” made entirely of mother-of-pearl shell from the Panamic Black lip oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica). Photo taken at the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) in Mexico City.
The Maya from the Yucatán Peninsula also employed pearls and nacreous shells for the same purposes, one of the most distinguished items that we can find from their culture is the funeral mask of King Pakal the Great (603 –683 C.E.), an elaborate mask made from 340 pieces of jade, with the eyes made from mother-of-pearl and obsidian discs, the earlobes adorned with two massive baroque pearls.
Figure 5: The mask of Mayan King “Pakal the Great”, found at his tomb in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. Photo taken at the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) in Mexico City.
Figure 6: One of the many Natural pearl necklaces (found in 1932 by Archaeologist Alfonso Caso) inside “Tomb 7” of the Monte Albán archaeological complex, near the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. Over 3 thousand pearls were found at this site, some quite large and all from the Panamic Black Lip oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica). Photo taken at the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca Santo Domingo in Oaxaca City.
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