Cathy Moser Marlett

“The Giants Ate Them”: Changes in Mollusc Consumption by the Seris of Sonora, Mexico, During their Transition from Nomadic to Sedentary Life in the Twentieth Century

The Seris (or Comcaac) were traditionally a nomadic hunting, gathering and fishing people of northwestern Mexico whose ancestral territory lies along the eastern shore of the Gulf of California. Oral tradition and extensive archaeological remains attest to their previously heavy consumption of molluscs and other seafood. During the early to mid- twentieth century the Seris became almost entirely sedentary, a process documented by oral history and ethnographic accounts. An important part of this documentation consists of photographs and a short film showing shell use toward the end of the period when the people depended almost entirely on food obtained by traditional methods. The transition to sedentism brought easy access to commercial foods, including lard, and introduced new ways of food preparation. Although considerable consumption of fish and sea turtles continued, harvesting molluscs and other food for personal consumption has declined significantly since the mid-twentieth century, resulting in loss of knowledge of mollusc names and marine-related terminology among younger people today. Present-day harvesting primarily focuses on pen shells, taken by divers using a hookah apparatus, and the adductor muscles are sold to commercial buyers from outside the Seri community. This presentation draws on oral tradition, historical records, and ongoing investigation to look at changes in harvesting and consumption of molluscs during the past century.

Keywords: Seri, Mexico, Gulf of California, mollusc consumption, historic changes.

Figure: Juanita Herrera Casanova holding the shell of an oyster, recalling the abundant shellfish she ate while living at the camp as a girl. Estero Santa Cruz, 2014 (© Cathy Moser Marlett).