The Hummingbird Clue

by Daniel K. Statnekov

Copyright ©1990 Daniel K. Statnekov

There exists a gold artifact, made by artisans from an extinct culture, the Chimú, who in ancient times lived on the north coast of what is now Peru. The artifact is the modeled statue of a man, a deity perhaps, crowned with a semi-circular headdress of gold filigree set with turquoise and jade stones. Radiating lines of repoussé in the headdress connect each stone with the figure's head, and in his hands, which are clasped in front of him, he holds a beaker. From each side of the headdress, next to the statue's ears, dangle tiny hummingbirds, also made of gold. In the absence of a written language left by the Chimú, or identifiable descendants of this now-vanished civilization, there is no definitive explanation of who this figure was, or what deity he might represent. But there are clues.

The attitude of the figure is ceremonial. Certainly, the manner in which he clasps the beaker conveys the posture of a man in ritual. Could this be a participant in an ancient rite of communion? Does the flask contain a concoction of Ayahuasca or San Pedro cactus, two of the more efficacious hallucinogenics known to the Chimú? Perhaps the repoussé lines that radiate from the statue's head have something to do with the emanation of thought, and the jade or turquoise disks where the lines terminate are symbolic of consciousness raised to the spiritual dimension that the minerals represent. Why couldn't jade have served as the same symbol for the Chimú as it does for the Chinese? In China, jade has always been a symbol for heaven. Another clue that might give us a glimpse into the little statue, are the tiny hummingbirds.

Consider the sound of the hummingbird as it flies or hovers overhead: a low pulsating flutter, as if a large night butterfly - drawn to the light - beats its powdered wings against the glass. The hummingbird's sound is unique in nature, but - interestingly - the Chimú knew how to reproduce it. Following a tradition that had existed for more than a thousand years, Chimú potters fashioned ingenious ceramic bottles that whistle when you blow into them, and when played in concert, create a sound that is most succinctly described as the low, fluttering sound of a hummingbird in flight.

If we accept the premise that the pre-Columbian representations that modern people classify as "art" are symbols meant to convey meaning, then the hummingbirds that dangle next to the ears of the statue could symbolize a special importance ascribed to hearing or listening to the sound of hummingbirds. In any case, it is a singular occurrence: the hummingbird adornment at the ears of the gold statue, and the discovery of pottery whistles - made by the same people who fashioned the statue - that replicate the unique sound of hummingbirds in flight.

There is evidence to suggest that this is not a coincidence. An acoustical analysis of whistling bottles fashioned by nine Andean civilizations (encompassing a time span of two thousand years) determined that the whistles were tuned within a discrete range of frequencies. The UCLA study also quantified a unique auditory phenomenon that takes place when whistles from any one culture are played together. Most intriguing is the discovery that this auditory phenomenon takes place only within the hearing apparatus of the listener. The sound that is perceived when listening to the pottery whistles is not a sound that can be measured in an acoustics laboratory. The tones interact in a unique way that is only perceived by the human brain because of our specialized auditory circuitry.

The whistles are not musical instruments, either. In most instances, the entire range of tones produced by any single culture is less than half an octave, and there is no reported instance of the whistles being played in any of the pre-Columbian musical forms that have survived.

There is little doubt that they are psycho-acoustical devices, but how were they employed? Were they used by the Chimú and other pre-Columbian cultures to effect consciousness? If so, then why isn't anything known about these instruments, and why has it taken nearly five hundred years to rediscover them?

One possible answer is that the whistles were a secret. Certainly, they weren't used for a secular purpose. They weren't whistles to call birds, for instance. But there is reason to believe that they were designed to effect the mind, instruments that were an element in an arcane, or hidden, psycho-spiritual technology, known only to an elect. Everything we know about the high civilizations of the Andes supports this: society was hierarchical, there was a deep belief in a spiritual reality, and knowledge was closely held within a highly stratified priesthood.

The conquest of the Incas in 1532 utterly disrupted pre-Columbian society and the indigenous priesthood to which the higher reaches of experience belonged were primary victims of that catastrophe. It is highly likely that the hidden traditions became even more obscure with the arrival of the Conquistadors. The task of the clerics from Spain who accompanied the conquerors was to establish the church and in the process, stamp out every vestige of Indian "superstition." If the whistles were an element in the Indian's scientific or religious tradition, they were probably known only to an elect, and it is probable that the conquest obliterated whatever usage these devices served, along with the people who employed them.

In retrospect, the discovery of an ancient acoustical technology in Peru doesn't seem so strange. The Andean area is a fertile ground for students of the mysterious. The Nazca lines suggest a high level of mathematical abstraction, trepanned skulls are evidence of sophisticated medical procedure, and there are enigmatic and complex masonry constructions throughout the region. For centuries, travelers to the old Inca Empire have been mystified by megalithic stone works, such as the great wall at Sacsahuaman near Cuzco, where sculpted rocks the size of pickup trucks are set into a wall that staggers the rational mind. Numerous fanciful explanations have been proposed for how the rocks were shaped and moved into position, but one legend that persists is that the huge, shaped stones were split along precise harmonic lines with sound alone and then they were "resonated" into their positions in the walls.

The ancient whistling vessels are excellent candidates for instruments used in a pre-Columbian acoustical technology. By themselves, each whistle is not remarkable. The sound that they make approximates the sound made by the whistle of a tea kettle at full boil. What is most noteworthy about the ancient whistles, however, is the interaction of their sounds. Because they are very closely pitched, when they are played together they create low-frequency difference tones or "beat" frequencies in the brain. These are perceived as a low, fluttering hum, a sound that most closely resembles the sound of a hummingbird in flight. Acousticians categorize these sounds as "phantom" tones that do not have a reality in the physical dimension. They are created solely by our hearing apparatus and the auditory circuitry of our brain; they are a creation of our consciousness.

If we were looking for a mechanism to access uncharted regions of our minds, "phantom" sounds would be an excellent candidate. Their effect is to hearing, what the old 3-D movies were to vision: remember the spear thrown by some befeathered aborigine? It came right out of the movie screen and into the theatre. That's the way the sounds of the Chimú whistles feel in the brain. When a half-dozen or more of these whistles are played together the effect is aural 3-D that floods the mind with the sounds of oceans and wind, the murmur of voices speaking in tongues, and a sensation that feels like no-voltage electricity surging from one side of the skull to the other. The totality of the effect gives participants a sense of the space inside of their head, and the tides of sound seem to sweep the mind clear of thought.

Carson Jeffries, Professor of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley (where else?), has proposed a tentative model to explain how the unusual effect of the whistles might influence brain wave configurations and consequently, consciousness. Jeffries explains that beat frequencies are very close to the frequencies displayed in an EEG tracing of brainwave activity which vary from approximately 30 cycles per second (random, normal consciousness), to about 9 cycles per second (alpha waves observed in people in meditative states), all the way down to 5 to 6 cycles and even 2 to 3 cycles per second (the so-called "Delta" and "Theta" states of consciousness).

Jeffries hypothesis is that the beat frequencies are so close to the electrical signals that the brain itself normally generates, that the addition of an acoustical stimulus at a brainwave frequency could be the possible responsible stimulus for a change in consciousness. The mechanism at work would be "electrical interference" between the brainwave voltage and the voltage generated by the sound stimulus. A second hypothesis is that the unique sound stimulus might "entrain" the EEG frequency, i.e. control the frequency that the brain uses for its gross activity, changing it to the beat frequency generated by the whistles.

The idea that conscious "tuning" of brain function might be possible is no longer an idea proposed only by science-fiction writers. Biofeedback has demonstrated that human beings can gain conscious control over parts of themselves that were previously thought inaccessible. EEG to computer linkups have enabled people to activate mechanical devices through thought alone. The hypothesis that Peruvian whistling bottles were also intended to effect consciousness does not seem so strange given their effect on modern people.

If the ancient whistling bottles were instruments for a pre-Columbian psycho-acoustical technology, then it is exciting to contemplate that modern people may eventually reconstruct the old knowledge. Indeed, the tiny gold hummingbirds that dangle next to the ears of the Chimú figurine may be the very clue that we've been looking for to the Inca treasure that still awaits our discovery.

Webmaster:  Daniel K. Statnekov
Installed:  Nov. 15, 1996
Last modified:  Oct. 9, 2012