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Mexicolore contributor Roberto Velazquez Cabrera

‘Death whistle’: cremated example (re)discovered

This update on the ‘death whistle’ has been written for Mexicolore by Roberto Velázquez Cabrera, a mechanical engineer by profession who has made a life-long study - including the physical reconstruction - of ancient Mexican resonators and other wind instruments. He is the founder of the Mexico City-based Instituto Virtual de Investigación Tlapitzcalzin (link below).

Pic 1: Photos of the whistle, by Jorge Cervantes Martínez
Pic 1: Photos of the whistle, by Jorge Cervantes Martínez (Click on image to enlarge)

This short paper is to announce the rediscovery of a death whistle from the archaeological zone of Ixcateopan (350-1521 CE), state of Guerrero, Mexico. It was found by Jorge Cervantes Martínez, lecturer-researcher at INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia), when he was looking for bones from Guerrero in INAH’s archives. The whistle was rediscovered in a sack of materials from a burial, including the remains of bones from a cremated individual, more than 90 small obsidian knives, a clay pot and pieces of charcoal, without any information or data as to how they were originally found.

Pic 2: The Mazatepetl ceramic death whistle fragment
Pic 2: The Mazatepetl ceramic death whistle fragment (Click on image to enlarge)

The original exploration of the burial was by Josefina Gasca Borja, in 1986, but the technical report of the discovery has not been found.
The discovery is very important, because it is the first known resonator of this extraordinary Mexican type found in conditions that allow the original sounds to be produced and the object to be scientifically analyzed. The only known resonator of this family that has previously been analyzed with its sounds is a fragment from Mazatepetl [see the main feature on the Death Whistle, right].
A full analysis of the burial remains will need to be carried out in laboratory conditions.

Pic 3: X-ray of the resonator
Pic 3: X-ray of the resonator (Click on image to enlarge)

Sounding mechanism
The internal structure of the resonator can be shown through X-ray examination (picture 3), but the resulting image is not very clear, because the ‘chaotic chamber’ (the internal cavity where the complex, turbulent sound waves are produced) shows up largely white due to the heavy coating of ceramic deposits located in the middle.

Pic 4: Spectrogram of the recorded sound
Pic 4: Spectrogram of the recorded sound (Click on image to enlarge)

Analysis of the sounds
The noisy sounds from the resonator are not musical (in the modern western sense), rather they resemble the sounds of winds and other natural phenomena, as well as of (unidentified) animals. The resonator can produce many different types of sounds depending on the way it is blown. It is capable of generating a wide range of noisy sounds, each with varying intensity and timbre.
The frequencies of the recorded noisy sounds in stereo are shown in the spectrogram of picture 4. It was generated with Col Edit Pro 2.0 software.

Pic 5: Spectrogram of the second recorded segment
Pic 5: Spectrogram of the second recorded segment (Click on image to enlarge)

A second, mono, example of the recorded sound segments is shown in the spectrogram of picture 5. The noise is generated up to 23 Hz, with a band of strong frequencies of more than 2 kHz and other stronger ones from 2 kHz to 3 kHz, with noise up to more than 7 kHz. The noise of the spectrogram can be heard by clicking on the button at the bottom of the page...

Pic 6: The location of the audibility test on the campus of the National Polytechnic Institute, Mexico City
Pic 6: The location of the audibility test on the campus of the National Polytechnic Institute, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

Analysis of acoustic strength
The pressure of the sounds was from 90 dB to 106 dB, measured with a sonometer at 1 meter and 0 degrees. It is equivalent to an acoustic power of from 0.0125 Watts to 0.5 Watts.
To test the maximum audible power in terms of physical distance the resonator was played in an open field of the National Polytechnic Institute, Mexico City. The sound could be heard up to a distance of 250 steps away in an open field (picture 6). It means the sounds of the resonator could and can be heard within the ceremonial space of any archaeological site. The effective audible power is due to the strong frequencies generated within the range of maximum human hearing and the instrument’s acoustic power.

Pic 7: The ceramic surface showing the remains of decorative pigment affected by the smoke and fire from the cremation
Pic 7: The ceramic surface showing the remains of decorative pigment affected by the smoke and fire from the cremation (Click on image to enlarge)

It seems that other death whistles might have been used in the sacrifices of slaves, because chichtli (in Nahuatl) was an instrument that could produce a chich sound and it was used in the banquets of Aztec merchants where slaves were killed: according to the Florentine Codex, chich was the signal to pull out the hair from the middle of the slave’s head. To analyze this possible connection the chich spectrogram and the sounds of the death whistle model were produced and compared. Considering this finding and the connection with the wind god Ehecatl, the death whistle could be named Ehecachichtli in his honour.
This death whistle and other artefacts from the burial will be analyzed in a laboratory, as extensively as possible. The results of these analyses will be published in due course.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Feb 08th 2015

Listen to the spectogram segment here...

‘The death whistle’ (original feature)

Virtual Research Institute Tlapitzcalzin
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