Complex Whistles Found to Play Key Roles|
in Inca and Maya Life
From the New York Times:
Science Times Section
Tuesday, March 29, 1988, page C-1
by William J. Broad
Copyright ©1988 The New York Times
Much more than toys,|
the whistles were genuine
Experts are teasing thousand-year-old secrets from the clay whistles,
ocarinas and flutes of the ancient Americas, discovering that these
old musical instruments are surprisingly advanced in their construction
and tonal qualities.
Once dismissed as toys, these objects are now seen as ancient American
wind instruments that were vital to the life of the Inca and Maya peoples,
including the ruling elite.
Recently in Belize, a rich lode of instruments was unearthed from a royal
tomb, underscoring their importance.
The new appreciation of the pre-Columbian instruments is being fueled
by recent discoveries of musical objects at archeological sites in Central
and South America and by increasingly rigorous analysis of such instruments
for their cultural significance and mechanical action.
Indeed, some are turning out to be so complex that they have no counterparts
in modern instruments.
Army of Researchers
In the last few years, a small army of physicists, archeologists, anthropologists,
musicians, ethnomusicologists, and craftsmen have probed these ancient wind
instruments with tools, X-rays, stethoscopes, stroboscopes, tape recorders,
frequency meters and spectrum analyzers.
In one case, a tiny ocarina, which is generally more complex than a whistle
and wider than a flute, generated much interest because it had an impressive
ability to produce 17 notes. X-rays showed it to have three hidden chambers
that gave it unusual versatility.
The earliest pre-Columbian clay instruments, found on the coast of present day
Ecuador, date from thousands of years B.C. The art of instrument making
flourished unti the time of the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, and is
still practiced, though with diminished skill, by descendants of the prehistoric
"People think of these objects as signaling devices or playthings," said Sue
Carole De-Vale, head of the systematic musicology program at the University
of California at Los Angeles. "That's wrong. They were clearly musical
instruments, used for ritual and pleasure."
Few written records were left by the people who made and played the
ancient instruments, forcing modern experts to glean tantalizing clues about
their use from the objects themselves, their sounds, Spanish accounts and
ancient Indian murals. For centuries, pre-Columbian instruments were
generally regarded as curiosities that were valued more for their shapes
than for their ability to produce music. Every major museum had a few,
although curators sometimes did not realize they were musical instruments
or know how to make them come to life. Moreover, the instruments revealed
little about the people who used them since the objects had often been
removed from their cultural context by grave robbers and curio dealers.
"Because the remains of musical instruments have been found sporadically,
and rarely in concentration, they've been written off as another small
artifact," said Norman Hammond, a professor of archeology at Rutgers
University who specializes in Maya music.
New discoveries, however, are raising their status. At a Maya burial site at
Pacbitun in Belize, in Central America, Paul F. Healy and a team of
archeologists from Trent University in Ontario recently unearthed a rich
lode of more than a dozen flutes and ocarinas buried beside Maya rulers.
After 1,000 Years, Sound
"Such instruments are seldom in this kind of context," Dr. Healy noted.
"They may have been used by musicians in the funeral procession. One
of the more interesting moments was when we blew them for the first time
in a thousand years."
The figurines shaped like men have lower tones than the female ones.
The Belize site also produced two unusual hybrid instruments that were
half flute and half rattling maraca.
To date, thousands of acoustically distinct clay instruments have been
found in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Columbia, Ecuador
and Peru. The instruments include examples shaped like animals,
human figures, and imaginary beings. Musically, they include double,
triple, and quadruple flutes, which can produce more than one sound
at a time.
Experts say such musical diversity starts with clay, which is deceptively
simple. It can be modeled, flattened, rolled, pinched, coiled, pressed,
scored, shredded, pierced, stamped, extruded, cut, spun or cast in molds.
When fired to high temperatures, it becomes hard as stone.
The ease with which clay can be made into musical instruments allowed
the cultures of the pre-Hispanic Americas to advance musically at a time
when Europe was experimenting with wooden recorders and metal flutes.
As with most musical instruments, the clay ones evolved gradually as
generations of craftsmen drew on a growing store of knowledge.
All whistles, as well as recorders, ocarinas and pipe organs, work on the
same general principle: A smooth flow of air encounters some obstacle
that causes it to break into vortexes, which give rise to the oscillations heard
as musical tones.
In most whistles, a carefully constructed passage forces a smooth flow of air
out a slit onto a sharp edge on the side of the instrument, breaking the airflow
into vortexes that spiral away from and into the instrument. The larger the
inner chamber, the deeper the tone. Finger holes in the chamber effectively
change its size, allowing the production of a series of different notes.
One of the first scholars to study the ancient American instruments
systematically was Samuel Martí, a Mexican anthropologist. "There
can be no doubt that pre-Columbian music reached a level of development
comparble, perhaps superior, to the contemporary cultures of European and
Asiatic origin," Dr. Martí wrote in his 1978 book, "Music Before Columbus,"
published by Ediciones Euroamericanas in Mexico City.
For nearly two decades, Dr. Hammond of Rutgers University has been
studying the origins of Maya music in Belize, especially the whistling figurines
of Lubaantún, an ancient Maya center. Although the flowering of Maya
culture occurred between A.D. 200 and 900, some complex musical instruments
are far older. Dr. Hammond noted that one early Maya ocarina, dating from
500 to 600 B.C., is advanced enough to play the first five notes of the tonic
scale, that is, do, re, me, fa, so.
"Five-note ocarinas are scarce," he said, "and something that matches an Old
World scheme is vere unusual." The intervals between notes vary widely, in
theory being nearly infinite.
He added that some of the instruments were far from sophisticated, the intervals
between their notes being "a shade off."
Another scholar, Dale A. Olsen of the Florida State University school of music,
has concentrated on analyzing the musical instruments of the Tairona of
northern Colombia, one of the first Indian cultures wiped out by Spanish
conquerers. Dr. Olsen studied 400 of their clay whistles, ocarinas and flutes.
Playing in Harmony
With an electronic stroboscope, which uses flashing lights to analyze the frequency
of sound waves, Dr. Olsen measured the pitch of the instruments with great
accuracy. He found that many had similar tuning systems, implying they could
be played harmoniously in concert with one another.
"They were probably vital for conjuring up the supernatural, for protection, for
religion and culture," he speculated. "The care that went into making these
instruments suggests that they were more than diversions or toys."
Perhaps the most intensively studied instruments of all are the enigmatic
whistling bottles of Peru, which were made continuously for two thousand
years, starting around 500 B.C. Hundreds of these have been found in fanciful
shapes that are built upon single bottles or double ones joined together. These
bottles have been split open, X-rayed and analyzed. Yet their function remains
a mystery. When partly filled with water and moved about or emptied, they
produce a weak whistling sound. But if their spouts are blown directly, they
produce a sharp tone.
Bottles' Harmonic Structure
Stephen L. Garrett, a physicist at the Navel Postgraduate School in
Monterey, Calif., and Daniel K. Statnekov, a whistle musician, analyzed
the harmonic structure of 73 of these clay bottles from nine cultures that
inhabited the coasts and highlands of Peru, including the Incas. Using
spectrum analyzers and frequency meters, they tested the tonal ranges
and found that the bottles of the same cultures had similar frequencies,
while those of dissimilar cultures had different ones. This led them to
challenge the conventional wisdom.
"The bottles are generally regarded by anthropologists as utilitarian liquid
containers with the whistle providing an amusing method of venting," they
wrote in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. "We are
suggesting an alternative interpretation of the bottles as having been
specifically produced as whistles."
In an interview, Dr. Garrett said their revision was driven by the fact that
curious sounds were produced when two or three bottles of the same culture
were blown simultaneously. Their higher notes would interact to produce deep,
lower notes that could not be tape recorded but only heard in the ear, where the
effect is generated, he said. "The idea is that these low-frequency sounds were
important in religious rituals for changing states of consciousness," he said.
Indeed, Mr. Statnekov has recently written a book, "Animated Earth," published
by North Atlantic Books in Berkeley, that recounts a spiritual quest for meaning
in his life that was triggered by blowing ancient Peruvian bottles. "Fifteen years
ago I was living the life of country squire," he recalled. "Then I bought a whistle
at auction and it changed my life."
While many experts doubt his notion that old musical instruments have a special
ability to stimulate spiritual growth, they agree that these objects are a good way
to probe the past, revealing the ancient civilizations of the Americas to be
surprisingly advanced in ways not previously appreciated.
"Music is a measure of cultural complexity," said Dr. Olsen of the Florida State
University. "It adds the other layer of knowledge about their social intricacies