Millenary acoustics considered as the ancestor of the whistle; it could be up to 3,000 years old

08/04/2021

A referee's whistle blows to indicate that the game is over, just as the whistle announces the end of the working day in an old factory. However, neither the players nor the workers know that these devices have their origin in the noise generators developed more than three thousand years ago by the Olmec culture. 

Such is the case of the noise generators made of ilmenite rocks, which emulated the noises and sounds of the wind that, due to their characteristics, have come to be confused with beads and pieces of ornamentation. In spite of these erroneous interpretations, new investigations have allowed considering that these blowers, also called whistles, are the oldest sonorous evidence of the pre-Hispanic era.

Noise generators made of ilmenite are the antecedent of the so-called death whistles that civilizations such as the Mexica and Maya used in mortuary rituals. The ilmenite noise generators, unlike the death whistles that presented the design of a skull, are characterized by a square shape, with concave ends, and two holes that cross the small structure. One of these holes is larger than the other, which is directly related to its sonorous function.

In spite of their different shapes, both devices have the same acoustic principle based on the chaos that is formed when the wind, coming from different directions, collides and causes the generation of noise. The air generated by the mouth enters through one of the orifices and reaches a circular chamber with no exit, which causes it to return and try to exit through the same place. This generates wind chaos that emits a noise.

The frequencies emitted by these noise generators reach up to 4 thousand hertz, a range tolerated and appreciated by the human ear, so that these sounds can travel long distances (200 to 500 meters) from the place where they are executed. However, the range was even greater when people were located in high regions.

For the elaboration of the whistles, pre-Hispanic "drills" were used, designed from a rod arch, which supported, from one end to the other, a cord that served to entangle a "drill" that when turning it wore out the worked piece. The "drill bit" was a rigid stick, with a tip made, generally, of a much more resistant material than the one being drilled, and there is even evidence of the use of abrasive substances such as quartz powder and sea sand for this purpose.

"It is surprising the technology developed by these people for the elaboration of the whistles; the fact of creating artifacts to perforate stones as hard as ilmenite speaks of significant knowledge for the time" - Roberto Velázquez Cabrera, a specialist in sonorous archaeology.

The techniques have survived to the present day. Nowadays, there is a kind of whistle made of soda cork, which is flattened, folded in half, and perforated on both sides. These metallic devices have the same principle as the pre-Hispanic ones and are still used as toys for children.

Another relevant fact is the recent discovery of a large number of ilmenite noise-generating pieces, approximately 150 thousand, in the archaeological site of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, southeast of Veracruz. Together they reach 6 tons in weight, which are under the protection of the National Institute of Anthropology and History.

This type of rock is one of the hardest known to date due to its igneous origin. Due to its characteristics, it is considered a weakly magnetic mineral, generally black or gray in color, with a composition of ferric oxide, magnesium, and manganese. Ilmenite is used to make alloys for the space industry and pigments.

Nowadays, the sounds of nature, animals, and the context, in general, can be stored in modern devices that allow their later reproduction or use for specific purposes. Hundreds of years ago, in pre-Hispanic times, they were also recorded in the memory of men and reproduced by means of instruments that allowed them to imitate them in different rituals and contexts.

By Mexicanist, Source: INAH