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 different frequencies.

[photo of Daniel playing 
		Chancay whistle] 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.
[Chimu vessel, A.D. 700-1400] 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.
[Line art: interior of vessel with exposed resonance cavity]
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.
[Line art: interior of vessel with enclosed resonance cavity]
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 clear tone.

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.
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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.

Selected Bibliography

Published in:
El Palacio: Quarterly Journal
of the Museum of New Mexico
Vol. 85, No. 2,
Summer 1979.
El Palacio
Museum of New Mexico
P.O.Box 2087
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87504
(505) 827-4361

Installed:  Nov. 15, 1996
Last modified:  May 13, 2010