Hunting-gathering lives with molluscs


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PEOPLE with atypical relations of subsistence with nature – hunter-gatherers – have been the subject of intrigue and enquiry for archeologists, anthropologists, historians and economists over the last century. However, fitting fishers into these categories has presented many conceptual challenges in hunter-gatherer studies, which investigate and research both ancient human collectives and hunter-gatherers inhabiting the contemporary world. Fisheries throughout the world, from ancient times to the present, defy binary categories employed in understanding human societies – of simplicity/complexity of organization, modernity/tradition in culture, or that of subsistence/market based economies and modes, but also of positive/negative attitudes about nature.

‘Hunter-gatherers’, broadly speaking, refer to people who generally lived or continue to live in nature, engage in foraging for acquisition of food to some degree, but who are not dependent wholly on agriculture, farming and livelihoods which are only indirectly engaged with nature. The definition of the term itself has undergone some significant changes, as disciplines incorporated wider theoretical understandings. To many early scholars, hunter-gatherer lives suggested a more ‘natural’ existence, providing those who had long abandoned nature, insights into recovering aspects of their ‘true’ selves. To some, the originality of hunter-gatherer ways of living represents an authenticity that could help us morally steer our wayward world. It also holds promise for those aspiring to live without having to expend alienated labour.


The scholarship on hunter-gatherers now ranges from how they think of themselves and nature, the reasoning underpinning their decisions, cultural and normative aspects behind their social and political organization, how they engage with difference, with the ‘other’, and what relations and practices they have with the wider world that sustains or ejects them from the term ‘hunter-gatherer’. In what ways do contemporary social groups merit the hunter-gatherer tag? How can we understand relations of ‘living in nature’ in contemporary times and what implications does this have for conservation politics?

Hunter-gatherers of the present have not only helped us understand prehistoric humans, but also the changes in their lives. Understanding hunting-gathering will probably always require us to commute between understanding current and past practices. In this paper, I summarize some aspects of the lives of Paravar pearl and chank (or conch) divers/fishers living within the municipal limits of the city of Thoothukudi in Tamil Nadu, in South India. I show how their practices can relate to hunter-gatherer categories, and the discursive and material ways in which these fishers articulate their claims over and relations with nature through particular narratives, technologies and engagement with the world.

Studies of fisheries have complicated the elements by which terrestrial modes of living are usually understood. This includes notions of complexity of organization within fishing communities, the development of property relations, relations with marine animals and environments, knowledge production and foraging strategies and the influence of spatiality on groups that occupy a ‘frontier’ region of exchange.

The popular image of ‘a hunt’ doesn’t accommodate sluggish creatures and the marine mollusc isn’t the first animal that springs to mind as a worthy adversary. If noticeable agility and speed in the enterprise, exercised by both prey and hunter are important criterion, then perhaps the term ‘gatherer’ might seem more appropriate to describe those fishing molluscs, leaving the term ‘hunting’ to describe the chase of more energetic prey. However, once we consider the environment of the mollusc and the practices of diving as active components of this performance, then the metaphor of a hunt becomes relevant once more.


The cognitive skills and dangers inherent in free diving for obtaining marine molluscs, either as food or exchange goods, underlines the divers’ closeness with nature. The story of entanglement between humans and marine molluscs does entail some mess-making of categories. So, rather than attempting to resolve which term one should rightly use, it might be more fruitful to explore what the harvesting of molluscs can tell us about categories and relations within a ‘hunter-gatherer’ framing.

That molluscs have shaped human history profoundly is not an exaggerated claim, although their ‘personalities’ might be less evocative of anthropomorphized qualities more readily discerned in the charismatic creatures of the forest or oceans. The archeological studies of shells as having social lives, the histories of specific shells like cowries in shaping European history by fuelling the Atlantic slave trade, the rise and decline of fortunes in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Mannar in relation to their pearl fisheries all attest to the might of molluscs and their place in human histories. Less on account of their fleshy liveliness, but more due to their ability to produce nacre, pearls, or calcareous outer shells of varied shapes and colours, and by being relatively inaccessible (available only in particular seas and extractable only by particular means), many marine molluscs are complicit in producing multiple values and meanings for humans, especially those associated with luxury, exclusivity, prestige and beauty.

Further, molluscs also shaped human lives. Not only do pearls and chanks bring fortune, prestige, auspiciousness and luck to end users, but the practices of fishing and consuming molluscs form identities of pearl divers across the world. Centuries of fisheries for these molluscs have been sustained by the production work of specialized divers, and exchange activities between and among other sets of humans. Although pearl and chank fisheries defy small-scale visions of hunting-gathering activity, the practices and lives of individual divers are closely determined by their intimate relations with molluscsan environments.


For over two millennia, the Gulf of Mannar was an important arena that generated and circulated throughout the world, pearls (from the bivalve Pinctada fucata) and chanks (of the gastropod Turbinella pyrum). It is a shallow marine space between present-day Sri Lanka and the state of Tamil Nadu in India, comprising the districts of Rameswaram, Thoothukudi, Tirunelveli and extending up to the tip of Kanyakumari. This coastline of the erstwhile ‘Tinnevelly district’ was termed the Pearl Fishery Coast. Several fishing villages dot this coastline and some of the pearl fishery villages are mentioned in ancient historical texts such as Sangam era literature but also from medieval travelogues and geographic atlases.

The fishing villages along this coast are inhabited by the caste group variously referred to as Paravar, Bharathar and Bharathavar. Other fishing castes who occupy this coastal region today are the Kadaiyar, Ambalakarar (a sub-caste of Mutharaiyer) and the Muslim castes of Marrakayar and Labbai. From ancient times (over 2000 years at least), the Paravar are said to be engaged in pearl and chank fisheries. Compared to other communities that inhabit this space, there is more scholarship devoted to the Paravar and their histories. Prominent leaders, writers and intellectuals among the Paravar often refer to a range of theories of ancient origin including those that claim a divine origin and those that trace Paravar descent from Bharatha, the younger brother of Lord Rama, the hero of the epic, Ramayana.


Historical sources indicate that the Paravar were engaged in several maritime professions over the centuries, including fishing. Today, people belonging to the Paravar caste work in multiple professions (not just maritime ones) and many have migrated outside the country as well. By comparison, the Paravar who still live in fishing settlements and who practice fishing (and diving) are relatively poor. However, the reference to an ancient origin and maritime culture, particularly that of being central to pearl fisheries is one that is alive in contemporary Paravar identity, even if many are clearly outside a hunting-gathering lifestyle.

Sangam era sources on diving for pearl and chank from the Gulf of Mannar depict this activity as being practised on a large-scale and with a level of social organization among Paravars that suggests a more complex system of extraction. Many boats were involved; many fishers had to be managed; and many traders, merchants and so on were involved in assessing, measuring and valuing the pearls. However, diving practices, the knowledge of the sea, pearl beds and the skills required for obtaining these items continued to rely heavily on the community of divers. It is here that the hunter-gatherer mode of living (and working) in nature coexisted within fishery practices that engaged with a much wider world.


Given poor historical and archeological sources (and resources), it is difficult to ascertain early evolutionary processes among Paravars as a social group. Few historical investigations have been attempted at understanding when ‘chiefly society’ emerged among them, when they began practising pearl diving and chank fisheries, or at what stage a division of labour set in within Paravar organization. It is understood from Susan Bayly’s scholarship that the pre-colonial Nayaks and Poligar rulers of this region, but also the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonials encouraged the formation of a Paravar elite leadership which would control and discipline the divers of the pearl fishery work force.1

In general, historiographic accounts range from discussions of Paravar as rulers of this coastline, to being suzerains of local kings, and also accounts of Paravar being politically disenfranchised as merely pearl fishing labour, at least from the time of conversion to Catholicism in the mid-16th century by the Portuguese and their subsequent loss of control over the pearl fisheries. None of these partial accounts offer definitive explanations of the historical shifts in internal organization of the Paravar or their relations with nature.

Few studies have examined property relations about the pearl and chank beds of the Gulf of Mannar, but it appears from British colonial records that the proceeds from fisheries were shared in varying proportions between entities that ranged between a number of actors who were involved. This included the local kings, colonial rulers, the church, temples (in the Ramnad fishery) the boat owners, divers, captains (mandadi), helpers, shark charmers (kadalkatti) and others. Property relations were also expressed in terms of when a fishery might be declared, and who might be entitled to be engaged in the fisheries.


It might be assumed from many records that fishers were not in complete ownership of their labour and that they exercised no control over the fisheries. However, there is little conclusive evidence of such absolute alienation. It should also be stated that neither are there enough historical sources which elaborate explicitly the ways in which divers actually controlled their own labour or exercised power over property relations. Much of this has to be gleaned by reading between the text of official reports and records in formal archives and from moving between present-day practices and oral histories.

Fishers talk about the practise of diving as a specialized skill that involves long years of training, and has some inherent limitations such as the number of hours when diving is possible, the seasons when it might be permissible and also the reliance on experienced divers and many other members within diving communities who were necessary for the operations to succeed. Late colonial records indicate that Paravar and Moor divers were engaged in pearl and chank fisheries between the Tuticorin fisheries and that in Ceylon. There was not just physical mobility between diver groups across both territories but also kinship ties, making for the complexity of social organization that characterizes fishers but distinguishes them from the typological categories ascribed to hunters and gatherers from terrestrial spaces as noted by anthropologist Gísli Pálsson.2 Thus, divers might have worked as ‘bands’ of mobile fishers that took with them an embodied skill of diving, and the attendant sociality inherent in large-scale operations of diving.


Post-Independence, the Madras Fisheries Department (created under British rule) continued to oversee the operation of the pearl and chank fisheries on behalf of the Indian state. Uncertainty in availability and harvest, depletion and destruction of pearl beds is attributed to the eventual cessation of pearl fisheries altogether. Till the 1980s, chank fisheries was under the monopoly of the Government of Tamil Nadu. Under this arrangement, divers were paid for the number of chanks they brought up (graded according to size and quality) but the state enjoyed the monopoly of sale, as it did earlier with pearls.

After a long period of protest and struggle, especially in Thoothukudi, the chank divers across the state of Tamil Nadu won private rights to diving for chank and for its sale even though individual divers had to be licensed by the state. In pre-colonial and early colonial times, the individual ‘licensed diver’ did not exist since divers’ relations with the ‘outside world’ did not require such an identity. The valuable products of fished-up molluscs belonged to the state and rights to fish these were negotiated by the leaders of the Paravar and other diver groups. With the introduction of individual licenses, Paravar and other ‘bands’ of divers enter into contractual obligations with the state.


Contemporary breath-hold divers who live within Therespuram engage in foraging in the sea for food (a range of marine species) which eventually is either consumed, bartered, gifted or exchanged for money. Along the Gulf of Mannar, fishers who dive use a range of techniques to catch multiple marine species, including the use of traps, spears, nets and their bare hands. Using a rudimentary spear – the manda (a steel rod ranging between a 1-3 metres length with a hooked and pointed end), divers spear edible fish, cephalopods like octopus and sometimes skates and animals hiding within rocky crevices. Fishers also use pieces of gill nets to catch cuttlefish (genus Sepia) and traps to catch larger finfish.

Knowing how to make and deploy these traps and nets entails a knowledge of the seabed, knowledge of fish behaviour, location of rocks, currents and winds, techniques to retrieve traps and nets, navigation techniques and handling and maintenance of boats, sails etc. Not all of these skills and knowledge are shared by every diver, but fishing is a collective performance that entails all of the above.

Upon removal from life in the sea to a terrestrial realm, a new stage awaits molluscs. Just the calcareous parts are afforded a new life, while the fleshy animal is consumed, entering bodies as nutrition, an unusual food consumed mostly by the Paravar but also by other fishing castes. Dr. Anthony Fernando, a leading malacologist with the Centre for Advanced Studies in Marine Biology, began a conversation with me on molluscan fisheries along the Gulf of Mannar coast with a self-introduction: ‘Actually, I too am from Tuticorin, I am a "Fernando" [the name by which many Paravar Catholics are known on this coast]. In fact, we used to eat the flesh of these chanks.’ But chank is food even for other fishers like the Kadaiyar, another Catholic fishing caste, highly skilled at fishing and diving and sharing with the Paravar, for a shorter period of a few hundred years perhaps, the history of being part of the pearl and chank fisheries.


The converted Catholics who belonged to the Ambalakarar caste also consume chank. ‘In those days, the women would clean out the flesh of the chank all night. We would then make chips out of them.’ It is interesting that the colonial records make little mention of the chank meat itself despite the fact that large quantities must have been generated in the fisheries.

An Ambalakarar leader of a local association of chank fishers says proudly, ‘It is a wonderful food and extremely tasty. It is in great demand,’ he added, handing me a few samples. A colleague with whom I travelled along the Pearl Fishery Coast later fried it at home but was unable to appreciate the flavour and taste. As with most ‘wild foods’, the value of chank meat and its appreciation demands a special receptacle – not just the stomach for it, but also the cognitive and cultural faculties and training to appreciate its nature. Chank meat and chips enjoys a good demand in local markets on this coast, but is accompanied by a special pride among the Paravar and non-Paravar divers I met. In its restricted consumption endure memories and accounts of who the divers are in relation to the sea and its foods, but also in relation to other humans.

Reminiscent of Hallam and Ingold’s interpretation of the lives of things as they move from one form to another, chanks probably only carry with them a reference of being living molluscs, once they have obtained a new form of life as a sacred object, decorative shell or a specimen of interest to conchologists.3 The living mollusc is subject to the experience of being prepared as food, eaten, relished and thus transforms into an embodied experience. The divers pride, familiarity and comfort in consuming chank meat results in a closeness to ‘wild’ nature that other humans do not share.


In recent times, a section of fishers within the Therespuram quarter of the port city of Thoothukudi have being using some components of scuba equipment (regulator mouthpieces, hoses, masks) to collect buried shells of the chank in the offshore waters of the Gulf of Mannar. It is not known why or how such shells come to be buried, but the shells thus collected are devoid any organic living matter on the outer shell (periostracum) or within it. A brief dip in a solution of hydrochloric acid is enough to render them a uniform white and market worthy. Traders belong to families of divers but are also from outside the community, despite the efforts of the fisher associations to keep the gains of the trade within the fisher associations.

Compressor diving so far has been used exclusively for the collection of buried dead chank. These divers are also licensed by the government. The use of compressors and scuba equipment like regulator mouthpieces, hoses, weights and masks without proper certifications and without adherence to the norms of scuba diving render this form of activity dangerous and risky compared to the protocols in recreational or professional diving. The nature of work involved is different from that of breath-hold diving for live animals. Compressor divers use gloves and pieces of metal plates to dig up the sea bed to depths of a few feet to look for dead chank.


Underwater, this activity makes for an arresting image. Long clouds of particles billow up behind focused divers who work busily, churning up the seabed, disrupting ecological processes and benthic marine life. Underwater, within one’s field of sight, curtains of opaqueness begin to engulf the remaining crystalline waters. This disruption of the seafloor by compressor divers is probably trifling compared to natural disruptions from strong storm surges or unnatural ones like the rampant bottom trawling along this coast, but it does invite questions on treating such practices as a ‘regular’ fishery. Perhaps the greatest concern comes from this particular form of diving. At depths reaching 30 feet, sustained physical activity for hours without adhering to diving protocols can and does result in complications from decompression sickness or death.

Under such conditions, fuelled by substandard air, conscious of the depleting availability of dead shells, divers are less focused on the world of the live animal even though they are surrounded by a living dynamic marine environment. Despite the demands of cognition and cooperation in compressor diving at sea, this fishery for dead animals produces a different set of relations to nature than that of the breath-hold divers who depend on the flourishing of marine life. Whether such a practice is right or wrong depends on how such relations are valued, contested and settled.

The anthropologist Mark Pluciennik reminded us about the cultural and historical contingency in anthropological categories related to subsistence practices which needs unpacking.4 He urged that our focus needs to be on the uses of these categories. In this paper, I presented a few aspects of Paravar divers’ practices around molluscan fisheries and histories to see what connections could be made with hunter-gathering ways of living. In summary, fishing for molluscs appears to defy strict typologies of hunter-gatherer lifestyles and blur the boundaries between them and non-hunter-gatherers, seen in traditional terms of social organization, roles, complexity of knowledge, technology or relations with ‘outsiders’.


This account of molluscan fisheries does muddle fixed notions of difference (between hunter-gatherers and others) but over time, there are discernable lines of similarity and difference that emerge. These lines become sharper when we compare practices between varieties of fishers and divers – those using compressors and those relying on their own breath. ‘Lines’, as anthropologist Tim Ingold tells us, can be drawn to show how people and things and stories are interconnected. But these very lines also help distinguish, compare, value and judge contemporary practices, which lies at the heart of crafting conservation politics.

Lines can be drawn around the ways in which divers come to relate to nature, which at an intimate level includes embodied knowledge (and technology) of staying alive underwater. Attention to historical lines shows how they shape property rights, tastes, desires, and norms around extractive and consumptive practices of animals and things – sometimes dead but always with a social life.



1. S. Bayly, Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age. The New Cambridge History of India VI, Vol. 3. Cambridge University Press, UK, 1999.

2. G. Pálsson, ‘Hunters and Gatherers of the Sea’, in Tim Ingold, David Riches and James Woodburn (eds.), Hunters and Gatherers 1: History, Evolution and Social Change. Berg Publishers, Oxford, 1988, pp. 189-204.

3. E. Hallam and T. Ingold (eds.), Making and Growing: Anthropological Studies of Organisms and Artefacts. Routledge, 2016.

4. For an outline of the relation between anthropology and notions of social evolution see M. Pluciennik, ‘Archaeology, Anthropology and Subsistence’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 7(4), 2001, pp. 741-758.