Natural History

Talking Taino: When Conch Was Queen

img9746This tasty gastropod has been a part of TCI life since Taino times.

By Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson

Anacacuya was the brother-in-law of Guahayona,

And he went with him, setting upon the sea.

Guahayona said to Anacacuya when they were in the canoe:

“Look at the beautiful cobo [conch shell] that is in the water.”

And when Anacacuya looked down at the water to see the cobo,

Guahayona took him by the feet and threw him into the sea.

And thus Guahayona took all the women for himself and left them in Matininó,

where there is today nothing but women.

Ramón Pané, 1496

Chuck Hesse wasn’t pushed overboard; he jumped (and he didn’t steal all of the women!). What he did do was establish the first conch farm in the West Indies. While an underwater engineering graduate student at the University of Connecticut in the 1970s, Chuck spent his spare time resurrecting a sailboat called the Alandra (Portuguese for “beautiful thing”). In 1974, he and Kathy Orr set sail for the U.S. Virgin Islands. Tired and wet from a difficult voyage, they decided to head for a place on their navigational charts called South Caicos. For them, these were uncharted waters and unknown territory (Chuck and Kathy got married on South Caicos).

In those days, South Caicos (which the Taíno called Caciba) was a bustling seaport. There were six seafood-processing plants where conch, lobster and fish were prepared for export and local consumption. Most of the boats were small sailing sloops whose rigging was festooned with drying conch. The fishermen used a bucket with a glass bottom to look beneath the waves and the conch was harvested with a long hooked pole. The conch (avoid the newbie mistake – it is pronounced “konk”) were taken to shore where the animal was removed and the shell cast into large piles along the beach. The fisherman believed that empty shells cast into the sea would discourage living conch from moving into the area. More practically, this would assure that fishermen would not waste time collecting empty shells from the sea floor.

The magnitude of this industry is remarkable. In the 1950s, Edwin Doran did a study of “The Caicos Conch Trade.” Doran found that millions of dried conch were being exported to Haiti (Ayiti) annually, and Chuck and Kathy used more recent “landings” to demonstrate that this trend had continued unabated until the late 1970s, at which time there was a substantial decline in conch harvests. Haiti had a more productive agricultural base at that time and a variety of agricultural products, which could not be grown in the Turks & Caicos, were exchanged for dried conch. The saddest recent trend has been the export of charcoal from Haiti (whose forests are severely depleted) in exchange for glass bottles from the Turks & Caicos for recycling.

In 2001, Peter Sinelli did his Ph.D. research on the archaeology of small islands with a focus on the small cays in the vicinity of South Caicos. Pete found extensive conch piles along their shores that measure on average six meters wide, two meters tall and up to thirty meters long. These ran perpendicular to the shore and he described them as similar to quays (docks) in a harbor.  At the bottom of these piles he observed shells with the telltale signs of aboriginal extraction. The Taínos made a round hole in the spire using the pointed apex of another shell and then extracted the meat by cutting the muscle with a sharpened stick or palm frond stem. The peoples who first inhabited the Islands started these piles. Modern fishermen continued these practices and discarded conch in the exact same way and place as the Taínos.

The construction of these conch piles is strikingly similar to those we studied in the Dominican Republic. We worked in conjunction with marine biologists from the University of Miami to excavate conch piles in the Parque Nacional del Este. Our goal was to understand the history of conch use in this area, which is the last viable conching ground in the Dominican Republic. At the time, the local fishermen were using “hookah rigs” (compressor- supplied air to divers) to collect conch at a depth of more than 60 meters (200 feet)! Needless to say, the fishermen suffered from symptoms of the bends and other disabilities, while the last breeding stock for conchs in the area was being decimated – a tragic situation for both populations.

Back to Chuck . . . who, after stumbling upon the Turks & Caicos and, ultimately, his life’s work, never left the Islands. He moved to Pine Cay (Buiana) in 1976. Liam McGuire (then Minister of Natural Resources) was in the process of reviving the Meridian Club development, which had attracted wealthy investors from the U.S. who were looking for a remote island, and where Chuck’s endeavors in conservation were better supported by charitable contributions (Bill and Ginny Cowles deserve mention). Chuck created an organization with a rather grand title – “Foundation for the Protection of Reefs and Islands from Degradation and Exploitation” (more digestibly known as PRIDE). On Pine Cay he began to focus on queen conch (Strombus gigas), while Kathy pursued a Master’s degree on conch ecology.

domeThey built a “Bucky ball” (a geodesic dome nicknamed for its inventor Buckminster Fuller). This soccer ball on stilts was the base of operations for PRIDE, and was run entirely on alternative energy sources (a wind-electric generator, solar water heater, and their vehicle was an electric golf cart). An amazing accomplishment 30 years ago!

Chuck moved his operation and the dome to Providenciales (Ianicana) and established the Caicos Conch Farm in 1985. Living in islands where conch seems to be readily available, it might seem surprising that anyone would try to farm them. Yet conch populations throughout most of the Caribbean have been severely depleted. Recently, Chuck expanded his operations and opened a new conch farm on Grand Turk (Abawana) on South Creek. Called “Conch World,” it was designed to introduce cruise ship passengers to the marvel of conch farming and highlights one of the remarkable features of the Turks & Caicos; a feature that has been part of the history since humans first arrived about 1,300 years ago.

Queen conch has long been an extremely valuable food source. What we eat is the “foot,” which is a muscle. When the animal is killed, rigor mortis sets in. The usual way for preparing conch is to smash the foot on a hard surface with a wooden baton made of lignum vitae (guiacan) to fashion “cracked” conch.

The beauty of conch, beyond the attractiveness of its colorful shell, is that when the muscle is properly bruised and then air-dried for several days, the resulting conch “jerky” will remain edible for up to six months. This is a huge advantage in tropical climates. Conch has long provided a storable source of protein for diets that often are subject to the vagaries of nature.

It is very difficult to estimate the quantity of conch consumed. Like today, Taíno fishermen cast the empty shells where they beached their canoes. There was no reason to carry the heavy shells to their village (where most archaeological excavations take place), except when the shell was intended for some other purpose, for example, tools. If we cannot estimate the amount of meat based on excavated shells, then how can we determine how much conch the Taínos ate relative to all the other foods in their diet? One method of assessing total past human diets is through stable isotope analysis. In essence, you are what you eat because a chemical record of your diet is contained in your bones.

Carbon, one of the basic building blocks of life (along with Nitrogen and Oxygen) has three isotopes (an isotope is an element that has the same number of protons but a different number of neutrons in the nucleus of an atom). Two of these are “stable” (12C and 13C) in that they do not change form through time. (A famously unstable “radioactive” isotope is 14C, which converts to Nitrogen over time at a constant rate and can be measured to produce a “radiocarbon date”). Scientists can measure differences in the ratios of the two “stable” isotopes of carbon and from this postulate past diets. Stable isotope analysis conducted on bones of excavated Taínos has shown that although conch and other mollusks were important in their diet, they never contributed more than 10% of the protein that they consumed.

pride-conch2Personally, we would be very happy if 10% of our diet was cracked, steamed, Creole, fresh or even dried conch. Unfortunately, overfishing has pushed conch into a luxury item status in most parts of the world. Here in the Turks & Caicos, where eating “cracked” conch every day is an option, it may be surprising to learn that conch is now CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) listed as an endangered species. There are restrictions on how many conch shells a person can possess (we heard of one case where a couple wanted to give a conch shell to each of their wedding guests, and were arrested for having too many conch shells!). For us, we need a special permit to bring conch shells from any archaeological site into the U.S. for study even though the animal has been dead for a thousand years!

The Bahamas and Turks & Caicos restrict the size of the conch that can be harvested. In most cases the animal has to have developed a flaring lip, which occurs at about three to four years of age. It is clear from archaeological and more modern shell deposits that this restriction was not met in the past. Many of these deposits have very small conch shells indicating that they were captured in seagrass nursery grounds. During our research on the small cay off the north coast of Haiti called Île à Rat (Columbus called it “La Amiga”), there were thousands of conch shells, but all were about eleven centimeters (about four inches) long, which represent the one to two year age class. The archaeological deposits date to around AD 1200. This may be the result of overexploitation but it also may be the result of preference, because the meat of young conch is more tender and tasty than the adult.

sc-conch-fisherman-1083The Caicos Conch Farm also ran afoul of this size limit law. Despite the fact that their animals were farm raised, the farm was prevented from selling juvenile conch because law enforcement did not have the means to confirm that the small conch were not extracted from the natural environment.

The native inhabitants of the West Indies certainly faced issues of resource management. It is likely that local conch stocks declined rapidly in the face of prehistoric exploitation, such that Taínos could not just walk down to the beach from their village and pick up a meal. However, the Taínos lacked the ability to capture conch from deep water (unlike the modern Dominicans), so they never tapped the breeding stock and new conchs arrived on the seagrass flats on an annual basis.

The Conch Farm and Conch World offer new hope for the much loved and over-harvested conch. Thanks to Chuck and his collaborators, we are looking toward a future in which conch will remain a delightful part of our diet and environment. The alternative is frightening. Imagine a day when we can no longer see the beautiful cobo in the sea, or hear the sound of conch being “cracked” in preparation for the fry pan.

Dr. Bill Keegan is Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida. Dr. Betsy Carlson is Senior Archaeologist with Southeastern Archaeological Research, Inc. (SEARCH) in Jonesville, Florida, and affiliate faculty at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Look for their new book, Talking Taino, published by The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35487-0380 (www.uapress.ua.edu),

ISBN -13: 978-0-8173-5508-1



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.

Michel Yamanis
Apr 11, 2009 8:57

I read the article and it misses some info that you may want to know,
In 1963 I Purchased the Dellis Cay from Mr. George Dellis And his wife.
Following an Exclusive Export Agreement with the Government That copi must be in the then Administrators Files,
I started The exportation of the Strombus Gigas Shells to Florida,
Mi concession with the Government was For 2,500,000 Shells per year, since this was not Sufficient to Maintain the 200 Man that I had working there at that time we also got in the Sponge Business. That the islands have in abundance.
If you were in the Dellis Cay you must have seen the Jetty we build to dock a ship.
This was all before you were there and Liam Mc Guire was Land surveyors working for the Government housed in South Caicos, later on he started converting his Home to A small Inn that he named Admirals Inn. You may have stayed thereat it was the only inn at that time of 1970.
I like to get your Email so we may exchange some info.
Yamanis@gmail.com

Leave a Reply

Comment

What's Inside The Latest Edition?

On the Cover

German photographer Georg Roske took this interesting image as part of a series of photos for the new South Bank development on Providenciales. And although he takes his pictures intuitionally and spontaneously, he realizes the “perfect moment” must be well calculated. For more of his work, visit www.georgroske.de

Our Sponsors

  • Beaches
  • Palms/Shore
  • Sothebys
  • Fortis
  • Is Bargains
  • Turks & Caicos Property
A TeamJohn Redmond
Pyrate RadioCays Construction
Twa Marcela WolfTurks Head Brewery
TCI FerryBox It 2 Me
Savory & Co.Hugh ONeill
Dempsey and CompanyT&C Reservations
Turks & Caicos Banking Co.KR Logistics
Point GraceCaicos Express Air
AvisWalkin Marine
Dempsey Luxury Resort
Chaise Bayjsjohnson

Login

Lost your password?