Why were seashells used in the kitchen?

Example of an archaeological clam shell likely used in an ancient kitchen to prepare food.

Do you remember cooking your last vegetable? The way you sliced, pounded, boiled, or roasted that plant damaged the small molecules inside it known as carbohydrates or starch. These carbohydrates stick to or become ingrained within your kitchenware and utensils. Hundreds or thousands of years from now, future archaeologists will be able to find some of your leftover food still stuck to your knives, pots, and pans. In essence, this what we are doing now to better understand the daily lives of past people.

Since 2015, our teams excavated numerous artifacts from three archaeological sites: El Flaco and La Luperona in Dominican Republic, and Palmetto Junction in the Turks & Caicos Islands. One type of artifact all three sites had in common were clam shells. Because scores of shells were recovered from each site, an equal but random selection was created to generate a representative sample of each of the three assemblages. These shells were then sampled and analyzed for starch content in the labs at Leiden University. When starch is recovered from an artifact it is evidence of that artifact contacting the plant that produced the starch grain. Not only is the starch taxonomicaly identifiable to species, but sometimes there are damage signs from ancient food preparation processes. These ancient traces help us interpret human practices (behaviors that show a snapshot of life in the past).

Locations of the investigated archaeological sites

Our recent publication, Starchy Shells: Residue analysis of precolonial northern Caribbean culinary practices details the results of this study. Based upon macroscopic and microscopic analyses, the presumed use of shells by Indigenous Caribbean Peoples was diverse, including bodily adornments, butchery knives, celts, chisels/gouges, fish hooks and descalers, hammers, knippers, net weights, perforators, and more. However, because European written sources (chronicles) suggested bivalve shells were used to peel manioc (cassava) the predominant assumption in the Caribbean had been that they were used primarily or even exclusively for this purpose.

Some bivalve shells likely used in ancient kitchens to prepare food.

After investigating 60 shells for plant remains, we can now conclusively say they were used to process a lot more than only manioc. The shells from this study were used to process sweet potato, yam, maize, ginger, manioc, palm, and beans. Interestingly, many of the plants were cooked before being manipulated by some of these shells. Perhaps the shells were used as spoons to move around hot food. People living at these sites used some of the same types of palnts for food and prepared them in similar manners. This does not necessarily mean all three sites were connected or interacting, but perhaps they were situated within a constellation of practice. To read more about this publication view it here.


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