Chavín de Huántar Archaeological Acoustics Project
An archaeoacoustic collaboration between Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) and Archaeology/Anthropology


Above, left: Peruvian master musician Tito La Rosa performed the artifact instruments in 2008, demonstrating an impressive range of sounding techniques for these ancient shell horns.
Above, right: Dr. Perry Cook performed systematic acoustical measurements in 2008 at the Museo Nacional Chavín.

Video: Cobi van Tonder; Photos: José Luis Cruzado Coronel.

In 2019 and 2008, we made performance experiments and acoustical measurements of the Chavín Titanostrombus galeatus (formerly classified as Strombus Lobatus galeatus and Strombus galeatus) marine shell sound-producing horns, known in the Peruvian Andes as "pututus", excavated from the ceremonial center at Chavín by Dr. John Rick and teams in 2001 and 2018.

Our journal articles, conference papers, and interviews about the Chavín pututus include:

"Experimentos acústicos y estudios de actuación con los pututus de Chavín de Huántar: Evidencias de su expresividad en relaciones entre seres diversos en un centro ceremonial del periodo Formativo"
Miriam A. Kolar, Riemann Ramírez Rodríguez, Ricardo Guerrero de Luna Rueda, Obert Silva Espinoza, Ronald San Miguel Fernández

Presentation at the Primer Congreso Internacional de Etno y Arqueomusicología, July 2021

SUMILLA

Expresiones musicales — en el sentido de la producción de una diversidad de sonidos y gestos sonoros — no son típicamente asociado con pututus o bocinas de concha marina, que son más conocido como instrumentos de toque, para hacer señales a través de largas distancias. Los 21 pututus de Titanostrombus galeatus excavado del complejo monumental Chavín de Huántar, de contextos asociados del medio milenio a.e.c. y de su Plaza Circular, ofrecen una oportunidad de medir su acústica, documentar una larga gama de sus posibilidades sonoras y probar su similitud con las réplicas que usamos en experimentos de actuación en el sitio arqueológico. Ofrecemos un resumen de nuestra investigación reciente con estos instrumentos, que documenta sus características actuales y que animan las representaciones de actuación de pututus en el arte lítico del sitio.

ABSTRACT

Musical expressions — in the sense of the production of a diversity of sounds and sonic gestures — are not typically associateed with pututus or sounding conch shells, which are better known as instruments for signaling across long distances. The 21 Titanostrombus galeatus pututus excavated at the Chavín de Huántar monumental complex, from contexts associated with the mid-millenium B.C.E. and the Circular Plaza, offer an opportunity to measure their acoustics, document a large range of sonic possibilities, and test their similarity to the replicas that we use in performance experiments in the archaeological site. We offer a summary of our recent investigations with these instruments, that document their actual characteristics and animate the representations of pututu performance in the lithic art of the site.

 

"Conch Calls into the Anthropocene: Pututus as Instruments of Human-Environmental Relations at Monumental Chavín"
Miriam A. Kolar

Yale Journal of Music & Religion – Article 4, Volume 5, Number 2 (2019): Music, Sound, and the Aurality of the Environment in the Anthropocene: Spiritual and Religious Perspectives

ABSTRACT

Pututus (conch-shell musical horns) are known in the Andes as annunciatory devices enabling their players to call across long distances. However, the sonic and gestural versatility possible in pututu performance constitutes dynamical evidence for nuanced archaeological interpretations of these multifaceted and ritually associated instruments. Pututus were documented in texts with drawings created during the Spanish conquest and colonization of the Andes, and intact shell horns have been excavated from monumental architecture in Perú preceding the Inca by more than two millennia. At the Andean Formative center at Chavín de Huántar, Perú, whose well-preserved ceremonial complex was active during the first millennium BCE, pututus were depicted in stone and on decorated ceramics. To date, 21 intact shell horns have been excavated at this UNESCO World Heritage site. The use-worn, identity-projecting, and symbolically notched Chavín pututus provide physical and acoustical evidence for functional interpretations of a multimodal ritual communication technology. In this article, I take a cross-disciplinary approach to examine the Chavín pututus with respect to site archaeology and its particular Andean highland setting, exploring the intersection of their materiality and dynamical potential, in context.

Chavín’s built environment and associated materials evince past strategies for environmental negotiations that foreshadow present-day discourse regarding the Anthropocene. I argue that Chavín’s site-excavated Strombus pututus were tools for ritual communication that link diverse ecologies with human interventions toward environmental control. Intrinsic to site ritual, the Chavín pututus were pivotal in the expression of human-ecological (re)positionings. Archaeological engagement of both sonic and environmental concerns is at stake in my exploration of human-environmental interdynamics and their conceptualization, rooted in the material culture of monumental Chavín and its setting. The human-environmental positionality of Chavín’s monumental architecture relates to the ecological materiality of pututus in their anthropic transposition from marine animal to (super)human vocal transformer and proxy: a technology of air transformation and wind interaction as well as sound production. Environmental interventions via Chavín architecture and performance using these multimodal instruments manifest strategic realizations of human dominance while communicating negotiation within its flow-directing ritualscape. The Chavín pututus harbor cosmological significance whose details are mired in the uncertainty of archaeology, yet whose materiality conveys reference and function: they are communication instruments that interrelate humans and ecosystems. In the ancient Andes, the Chavín pututus functioned as ritual technologies for humans asserting agency in ordering their cosmos.

doi:10.17132/2377-231X.1151

 

"Pututus, Resonance and Beats: Acoustic Wave Interference Effects at Ancient Chavín de Huántar, Perú"
Miriam A. Kolar

Presentation in Session 4pAAa: "Architectural Acoustics and Speech Communication: Acoustic Trick-or-Treat: Eerie Noises, Spooky Speech, and Creative Masking", at the Acoustical Society of America 168th Annual Meeting, Indianapolis, 30 October 2014.

Article and Media Examples

ABSTRACT

Acoustic wave interference produces audible effects observed and measured in archaeoacoustic research at the 3,000–year–old Andean Formative site at Chavín de Huántar, Perú. The ceremonial center’s highly–coupled network of labyrinthine interior spaces is riddled with resonances excited by the lower–frequency range of site–excavated conch shell horns. These pututus, when played together in near–unison tones, produce a distinct "beat" effect heard as the result of the amplitude variation that characterizes this linear interaction. Despite the straightforward acoustic explanation for this architecturally enhanced instrumental sound effect, the performative act reveals an intriguing perceptual complication. While playing pututus inside Chavín’s substantially intact stone–and–earthen–mortar buildings, pututu performers have reported an experience of having their instruments’ tones "guided" or "pulled" into tune with the dominant spatial resonances of particular locations. In an ancient ritual context, the recognition and understanding of such a sensory component would relate to a particular worldview beyond the reach of present–day investigators. Despite our temporal distance, an examination of the intertwined acoustic phenomena operative to this architectural–instrumental–experiential puzzle enriches the interdisciplinary research perspective, and substantiates perceptual claims.

 

October 2011: Dr. Perry Cook and researcher Miriam Kolar discuss measuring and studying the Chavín pututus.

 

"Acoustic Analysis of the Chavín Pututus (Strombus galeatus marine shell trumpets)"
Perry R. Cook, Jonathan S. Abel, Miriam A. Kolar, Patty Huang, Jyri Huopaniemi, John W. Rick, Chris Chafe, John M. Chowning
Invited paper presented at 2nd Pan American/Iberian Meeting on Acoustics, Cancún, Mexico, November 2010.

ABSTRACT

In 2001, twenty Strombus galeatus marine shell trumpets were excavated at the 3,000 year-old ceremonial center at Chavín de Huántar, Perú, marking the first documented contextual discovery of intact sound-producing instruments at this Formative Period site in the Andean highlands. These playable shells are decorated and crafted for musical use with well-formed mouthpieces created by cutting the small end (spire) off and grinding/polishing the resulting opening. The shells are use-polished, and additionally modified with a v-shaped cut to the outer apical lip. We present an acoustic analysis of the measured response of each instrument, to a variety of excitations, at microphones placed in the mouthpiece, player's mouth, bore, bell, and surrounding near-field. From these measurements we characterize each instrument's sounding frequencies (fundamental and 1st overtone where possible), radiation pattern, and impedance, and we estimate the bore area function of each shell. Knowledge of the specific acoustic capabilities of these pututus allows us to understand and test their potential as sound sources in the ancient Chavín context, whose architectural acoustics are simultaneously studied by our research group.