El Palacio Magazine|
Ancient Sound: the Whistling Vessels of Peru
by Daniel K. Stat
Copyright ©1979 Daniel K. Stat
In Peru, the Creation story relates that Viracocha, the creator/culture hero,
formed the first men out of clay and breathed life into
them... - Hermann
Trimborn, in Pre-Columbian American Religions
For 2,500 years Andean civilizations produced earthenware whistling
vessels. From Ecuador to southern Peru, Indian craftmen molded
clay into vessels that have only recently been interpreted as
specifically pitched whistles. The conclusion was made by Steven
Garrett and myself, and was reported in 1977 in
The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America.|
This acoustical analysis determined that each culture produced its
own range of frequencies, with the tones being in the area of
greatest sensitivity to human hearing. The acoustical study also
determined that no single culture fabricated whistles in a range
encompassing even half of an octave, indicating that the vessels,
although intentionally made as whistles, were not intended as
musical instruments - at least not in the usual sense. However,
when several vessels from a specific culture are played simultaneously,
a psycho-acoustical effect is created through the interaction of the
Since this discovery, many modern people have experienced this
effect when playing the vessels in small groups usually comprised
of from four to seven persons. Often, the players have reported
changes in their state of consciousness akin to the changes reported
by practitioners of various meditation techniques. The most
frequent response has been described as "a centering of
consciousness or Zen-like state of clarity."
Although there is no specific ethnographic evidence to define their
original purpose, the reported effects by players of these instruments
suggests that they were produced for some spiritual function. The
vessel iconography itself implies a metaphysical interpretation. The
most frequent motif besides that a a human personage is that of a bird.
In the Andean area the bird is a symbol for spiritual flight and in the
earlier cultures the bird most frequently depicted is the macaw parrot.
In Quechua (the Inca language), the name for a macaw parrot
is huacamaya. Whistling vessels are know as huacas, a generic
term denoting something holy or sacred, and huacamaya means "guardian of the sacred."
Frequently, the human figures protrayed on the vessels wear totemic
symbols or have animistic attributes. Vessels made by the highland
peoples (such as the Incas) often portray a jaguar, a creature still
believed to have innate supernatural or shamanic power. Vessels
made by coastal peoples (such as the Chimu) typically depict
formidable sea creatures such as the manta ray or sea lion. The sea lion
is regarded as a "sea cat" and perhaps to the ancients they had similar
magical qualities as did the jaguar.
Often the body of a vessel would be modeled in the form of a thorny oyster
shell (Spondylus), a highly symbolic object imported to Peru
from the earliest times and known to be associated with the oracle of
Peru at Pachacamac.
There are several reports which bear directly on the significance of
whistling to the Andeans. Alfred Metraux, writing on Religion and
Shamanism, reports that the approach of a spirit is generally
announced by peculiar whistling. Bernard Mishkin writing on The
Contemporary Quechua and Douglas Sharon in Wizard of
the Four Winds: A Shaman's Story report that contemporary healers
also summon the "healing spirits" by means of whistling.
Peruvian whistling vessels were slip cast, a process involving the
pouring of a mixture of clay suspended in water into plaster molds.
The Andeans originated the process of slip casting about 500 B.C.
and utilized it in the production of various ceramic forms, including
the whistling vessels.
The vessels are typically 15 to 30 centimeters in height, 20 to 30
centimeters deep from front to back, and 10 to 20 centimeters
wide. They are comprised of one or more chambers with an upper
bridge "handle" often containing the whistle, and , in those with
two chambers, a lower pottery tube that enables air to flow from
one chamber to the other. When the bridge handle contains the
actual whistle, the sound is activated by means of an airstream
which exits the effigy chamber through a small aperture.
In the case of an "enclosed type" whistle, the resonance cavity is
contained within the effigy itself and is also activated by a precisely
directed airstream. The physical dimensions of the resonance cavity
determine the frequency of the tone.
The psycho-acoustical effect appears to be created by the low
frequency "difference tones," or possibly the interaction of the
harmonic partials, which are produced when several vessels
from a specific culture are played simultaneously. The development
of more sophisticated techniques of measurement may eventually
supply a conclusive answer to this question.
For the past several years, I have been learning to make reproductions
of these intriguing vessels and have produced a number of "tuned"
sets for researchers. I have made replicas of several different models
of Chimú vessels with seven of the frequencies in the range
produced by the last Andeans to make such vessels in the early
sixteenth century. I was able to duplicate the original tones by sizing
my molds with precision ball bearings: a specific bearing size would
produce a mold which would give a specified tone, and another size
bearing would produce a mold with the incremental frequency.
The frequencies are about a hundred cycles apart and the consequential
change in bearing size was as little as fourteen-thousandths (.014) of
an inch to achieve the difference in frequency from one tone to another.
The resonance cavity is fine-tuned during assembly of the vessel by
adjusting the size of the orifice and also by making minute adjustments
to the thickness of the clay surrounding the orifice. The airstream
which activates the whistle must also be precisely located to insure a
Whistling vessels which I have produced are assembled from four cast
sections while the clay is in a semi-dry, "greenware" state, and then
they are allowed to cure very slowly to insure uniform shrinkage.
During production, the tones are pitched slightly lower, by
approximately 6 percent, to allow for this shrinkage when drying and
firing the ware.
The question which remains that is of particular interest to me is:
"What value might these vessels, with the apparent quality of
consciousness that hearing them induces, have for modern man?"
I believe that whatever potential this ancient sound energy holds may
become known through the existence of playable replicas in the hands
of interested researchers.
El Palacio: Quarterly Journal
of the Museum of New Mexico,
Vol. 85, No. 2,
Museum of New Mexico
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87504