Natural History

Talking Taino: The Chip-Chip Gatherers

chitons-bmrCollecting and eating small shellfish serves as a metaphor for Taino life.

By Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson

Chip-chip: a small shellfish found along the tideline of Trinidadian beaches. Gathering chip-chip is a weary task, bringing almost no reward.

Shiva Naipaul, 1973

In 1973, Shiva Naipaul, the brother of renowned author Sir V. S. Naipaul (Paul Theroux, 1998), published the book The Chip-Chip Gatherers. The quote comes from the inside cover of the dust jacket. In the book, he used chip-chip gathering as a metaphor for the futility of life. Chip-chips are tiny Donax clams (donaca) that live in the sand along the tide line and used to be eaten throughout the Caribbean and southeastern United States. They are a delight to watch, as they leave the sand with each passing wave and then burrow furiously back into the sand as the wave ebbs, repeating this action with every wave.

As Naipaul indicated, gathering and preparing chip-chip is a weary task. Each clam contains less than a gram of meat, and they must be quickly collected between each wave. Because they live in sand, the clams’ meat must be thoroughly washed after it is removed from the shell. The meat is then grated (which given its small size can be hard on fingertips) and then washed and strained to remove any remaining sand. The effort is worth it. If you are in Trinidad around the time of Carnival (chip-chip is only available in February and March), we strongly recommend that you make every effort to find a place that serves this tasty mollusk.

The consumption of chip-chips has an ancient history. At the St. Catherine site that we excavated in Trinidad there were thousands and thousands of their shells in the midden (refuse) deposit. Although we don’t find chip-chip in archaeological sites in the Lucayan Islands, we do find a wide variety of similar small mollusks whose collection and processing provide very small amounts of meat, such as the beaded periwinkles that cling to shoreline rocks.

This raises the question, why would anyone endure such a weary task for so little reward? Certainly people had more productive things to do with their time! But this attitude reflects our Western philosophical heritage.

A common assumption, traced back to the writings of Thomas Hobbes (Leviathan, 1651), is that life in the past was “nasty, brutish and short.” Hobbes’s philosophy later received a boost from Thomas Malthus (An Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798), who recognized that if population continued to grow unchecked, (due to the “unbridled passion of the sexes”) humans would soon outstrip available food resources resulting in starvation and death. Charles Darwin (Origin of Species, 1859) further promoted this conclusion in his oft-quoted notion of “survival of the fittest” (although fitness for Darwin was measured in the contribution of offspring to the next generation).

Alfred Lord Tennyson expressed this view most eloquently in his poem In Memorium A.H.H. (1849):

Who trusted God was love indeed

And love Creation’s final law

Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw

With ravine, shrieked against his creed

When the scientific disciplines of evolutionary biology and human ecology first developed, it was assumed that finding enough of the right foods to eat was the main struggle of animals and people (finding an appropriate mate was also important). Given the number of people living today in poverty, the views of Hobbes, Malthus and Darwin seem not so far fetched. From this perspective, people reduced to eating tiny clams must surely be on the verge of starvation. After all, a person expends more energy collecting these clams than they get from eating them.

Until the 1970s, notions of progressive cultural evolution viewed modern society as the acme of social development. People in the past must have lived deprived lives and cultures that survived by hunting and gathering were viewed as barely managing to survive. Civilization was only possible with the development of agriculture, which served as the foundation for the world’s great civilizations. Then along came Marshall Sahlins (1973) who was one of the first to actually calculate the amount of time hunter-gatherers spent obtaining food. He found that although these people had a paucity of material goods, they spent far less time than modern workers. In sum, they actually worked less hard to meet their needs than most of us do today. For this reason he called them “The Original Affluent Society.” Perhaps H. L. Mencken was right when he said that no labour-saving device has ever saved a minute of labor! (Mencken was the son of a cigar factory owner. Cigars were “invented” by the Taínos, so go ahead and light one up after your next great Caribbean meal.)

Let us reconsider the lowly mollusk. The modern view of eating mollusks is skewed by our notion of superiority over the past. In California, the brown land snail is a garden pest, while in France it is escargot. Digging clams in New England and catching scallops in Florida are popular family activities, but most people don’t do these to feed their family. Should we really believe that our lifestyle is so different to those who lived in the past?

The consumption of conch by the early inhabitants of the Turks & Caicos Islands seems to make perfect sense. Queen conch (carrucho or cobo) provides a large package of meat that is virtually all protein. In addition, if prepared correctly, dried conch can be preserved for up to six months making this a storable surplus item. But why eat other small snails and clams unless you are starving? Our answer is that the Taínos had the luxury of eating these other mollusks because they were not starving. Like us, they liked them and considered them worth the effort.

taino-shell-artifacts-bmrMany of the people who visit the Turks & Caicos Islands are primarily interested in the beautiful white sand beaches. We suggest that you take a moment to walk along the rocky shoreline where you will encounter the world of snails and chitons. Covering these rocks you will see thousands of nerites, periwinkles, chitons, and in a few places the West Indian top shell (whelk). The Lucayan Taínos ate all of these animals. Close by in the grass flats, there is an array of clams buried among the roots of the turtle grass or mangroves. All you need to do is reach down and pull them up (if they don’t “swim” away from your hand). It may be a folly of youth, but a lasting memory from invertebrate zoology class is that the clam’s body is folded in half such that its anus and head are side-by-side. It’s true; clams defecate on their heads. Yet, clams, oysters and mussels are considered delicacies (and appetisers), and are fun to gather and cook.

No doubt, you are familiar with oysters, mussels, lobsters and conch, but here are a few delicacies you may not have tried. Chitons are an armored creature that live on the rocks just at the tide line and are one of the hardest animals to harvest because they are firmly stuck to the rocks. The local name for them in these Islands is “suck rock.” A series of eight body plates surround the small, edible body and these plates are found in the archaeological middens and they are always intact. Without metal tools, the only way the Lucayan Taínos could have harvested these animals without smashing the plates and the meat inside was by using a combination of conch shell tools. The beveled tip of a conch columella would be used to wedge the animal free from the rocks with help from a conch hammer (made from the other spire end of the conch). So is it worth the effort? The resulting small strip of black meat of the chiton is salty, rubbery and a little slimy. Maybe not.

Another option is nerite snails. These snails are about an inch in diameter and are easy to pluck off the rocks along the water line. These are best prepared in a soup or stew, which easily releases the muscle from the snail shell.

Whelks can be prepared the same way or they can be eaten raw straight off the rocks. This is a larger gastropod that can grow up to 4 inches in diameter. The shells were modified as tools and ornaments by the Lucayan Taínos. The meat of the whelk can be picked from the shell with a small pointed tool if you can catch the animal before it slams the door closed. Its “door” is really the stony end of its foot, which fits across the opening of the shell in order to protect its inhabitant. This end is called an “operculum” and they are found in archaeological sites, with some of them identifiable to the animal they came from.

clam-scrapers-2-speciesConchs have a similar hard foot. The way to extract conch meat is to hit a hole in the top spire area and cut the muscle free from the shell with a knife or sharp reed. Modern fishermen use machetes to knock a slit in the top of the conch shell. Lucayan Taínos knocked a round hole in the top using the spire of another conch shell.

References to the lowly invertebrates of the world occur in all cultures and from all periods of time. One you may remember comes from an English nursery rhyme:

Mary, Mary quite contrary,

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockle shells

And pretty maids all in a row.

This rhyme has been interpreted as a reference to Mary (“Bloody Mary”), the daughter of Henry VIII. So, what is the subtext of this seemingly innocuous little poem? With the metaphors removed, the poem might read:

Bloody Mary, quite contrary

How does your graveyard grow?

With thumbscrews and genital clamps

And guillotines all in a row.

Clearly, we have gotten off topic!  We started by discussing the seasonal delicacy of chip-chip in Trinidad. For Naipul, a symbol of life’s futility, yet for many people clams and other boneless sea creatures are a source of great joy. Coming back to Hobbes, is it nature that makes life “nasty, brutish and short,” or could that be human nature? Let’s ask Mary.

Dr. Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida. Dr. Betsy Carlson is an Archaeologist with Southeastern Archaeological Research, Inc., Jonesville, Florida.

1 Comment

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Apr 25, 2011 14:39

hai ik heb een samenvatting van het boek the chip chip gatherers geschreven door shiva naipual nodig kan je het aub voor me mailen?????????????ik heb dat boek gelezen maar snap het helemaal niet het is heel erg ingewikkeld

Leave a Reply


What's Inside The Latest Edition?

On the Cover

South Caicos was once a major exporter of salt harvested from its extensive salinas. Award-winning Master and Craftsman Photographer James Roy of Paradise Photography ( created this vertical composition by assembling a series of six images captured by a high-definition drone which was a half a mile away from his position.

Our Sponsors

  • Fortis
  • Sothebys
  • Turks & Tequila
  • Shore Club
  • Turks and Caicos Real Estate
  • H2O Life Style Resort
  • South Bank
  • Turks & Caicos Banking Co.
  • Projetech
  • Turks and Caicos Tourism
  • Jewels in Paradise
  • TIC
  • Do It Center
  • Landscape
KR LogisticsSWA
jsjohnsonDempsey and Company
Hugh ONeillTwa Marcela Wolf
Parkway Pest SolutionsJohn Redmond
Misick & Stanbrook Caicos Express Air
Island Escapes TCILandfall
Great Bone Fishing Race for the Conch


Lost your password?