Friday, 23 May 2008

For flesh and shell

To early mankind the oyster represented more than another food. The shells might have been the first knives and spoons, even digging implements; certainly they were used for decorations and artefacts of worship. The luminescent inner coating of mother-of-pearl was lovingly cut out and fashioned into ornaments for the first artists to adorn religious icons; the rest might have been broken down and mixed with sand for cement for building ditches, roads and houses. They were traded for flesh and for shell and most coveted of all…pearl.

They would also have been a pointer to another crucial discovery for early man – salt. The shallow bays and inlets where the oyster flourished were invariably and necessarily tidal. The oyster’s sensitivity to the level of salts was a clear clue that here was man’s first preservation material for his own salvation. And the ability to salt and preserve food for many decades lent coastal towns a commercial sway and influence denied anywhere inland. Similarly, the presence of the oyster might have been read as a flag pointing to the presence of other essentials, especially minerals like zinc and copper that might be nearby in the area.

You could speculate back into pre-history on whether we would have evolved, or would have evolved how we have without the benign help of the oyster. Through history we have colonised and settled each continent from the shore first, and often as not the first civilisations emerged from oyster coves. Its discovery would have been a determining factor in how the first men and women moved from one cave to another, cove men might even be a more apt description than cave men. The oyster was an enabler and just as it attracted a wealth of marine life to the waters it inhabited for its bounteous gifts, so too it attracted man. Without it, the shape of evolution would be as different as if there were no trees, no grass. What might now to our 21st century minds seem so inessential, might 7,000 or more years ago have seemed completely essential, just as it was for the first settlers in America.

So elemental is the oyster, you might say, it is of its own age, just as much as if it were stone, bronze, techno or computer, all of whose eras it spans anyway. We live, however precariously, still in an oyster age.