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
musical instruments


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 Americans.

"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.


Spiritual Quest

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 and achievements."



Webmaster:  Daniel K. Statnekov
Installed:  Nov. 15, 1996
Last modified:  May 13, 2010

More Reading:

  • osteria del gesso

  • l'inter-crosse en france

  • anne graindorge

  • il melarancio

  • hotel le terrazze