Mayan Soundscapes Revealed through Ancient Instruments

Francisca Zalaquett Rock, a UNAM academic, pioneers the integration of sound into Mayan studies. Through the Mayan Sound Universes project, ancient musical instruments reveal cultural significance, architectural planning, and rituals. This research expands our understanding of Mayan civilization.

Mayan Soundscapes Revealed through Ancient Instruments
Unlocking the secrets of ancient instruments and their cultural significance through pioneering research.

In the realm of archaeology, our understanding of ancient civilizations has predominantly been shaped by the analysis of visual elements, leaving the auditory dimensions overlooked. However, Francisca Zalaquett Rock, an academic at the Center for Mayan Studies of the Philological Research Institute of the UNAM, is challenging this paradigm through her groundbreaking work on integrating sound aspects into the study of Mesoamerican communities, particularly the Mayan civilization.

Zalaquett Rock and her team have embarked on an ambitious project, the “Diachronic study of the acoustics, use, function and meaning of Mayan musical instruments,” aiming to unravel the sonic mysteries of Mayan culture. The Mayan Sound Universes website (, a testament to their efforts, offers a unique platform for exploring acoustic elements from pre-Hispanic to contemporary times. For the first time, enthusiasts can listen online to the “primary” sounds emitted by pre-Hispanic musical instruments preserved in museums.

The project delves into the organology of these ancient instruments, examining how sound is produced, its historical context, and classification. Architectural acoustics and the landscape are also scrutinized, revealing that the Mayans incorporated sound aspects into their architectural planning. The team found that specific instruments were played in designated places, such as the large squares of archaeological sites, emphasizing the interconnectedness of sound and space in Mayan rituals.

The artifacts themselves, ranging from aerophones like whistles and flutes to idiophones such as rattles and drums, hold deep cultural significance. For example, the sound of turtle shell instruments is associated with the cult of the earth, and their ringing plays a role in agricultural rituals. Rattles, referred to as “callers,” symbolize rain and fertility in Mayan culture.

Acoustic studies in prominent archaeological sites like Palenque and Chichen Itzá have uncovered intriguing findings. The team identified acoustic hotspots related to the placement of offerings that included sound instruments. Moreover, the phenomenon known as the “quetzal tail” was recorded in Chichen Itzá, raising questions about the intentional architectural design behind such auditory effects.

Zalaquett Rock's research goes beyond musical instruments to explore the broader soundscape of Mayan communities. Current Mayan communities identify and interpret sounds of fauna, considering them as communicative elements with implications for good or bad omens. Birds, in particular, play a crucial role in Mayan culture, with their songs influencing human actions based on perceived omens.

The Lacandon community in Chiapas and Kopchen in Quintana Roo showcase the intricate relationship between Mayans and fauna. The team, including an ornithologist, recorded the importance of birds as bearers of messages, reflecting the depth of Mayan beliefs and practices tied to the sounds of nature.

As the research, funded by the General Directorate of Academic Personnel Affairs of the UNAM and the National Council of Humanities, Sciences, and Technologies, continues, it aims to expand to other types of fauna, meteorological phenomena, and geographical elements. This innovative approach enhances our understanding of Mayan civilization and emphasizes the pivotal role that sound played in shaping their worldview and daily lives.