A musical mystery from ancient history

A musical mystery from ancient history

black double-chambered whistling pot

For over 2,000 years, people in the Andes mountains of Peru and Ecuador made whistling vessels. But shortly after the Spanish conquered the area in the mid-1500s, the practice stopped. Today, no one knows what they were used for. The Andeans left no records, and the Spanish – who took detailed notes on the region – never mentioned the vessels in their books.

Most researchers think the bottles were used either to hold liquid or for drinking. The whistles were simply decorative, creating an amusing sound as the liquid was poured. But some researchers disagree. They note that the sound produced when pouring is very soft – barely audible. But when you blow into the vessel, you get a nice, loud tone. They argue that the bottles were made to be used as whistles.

As musical instruments, however, the bottles have some serious limitations. Each produces only one, or at most two, notes. And all the bottles in a given region are tuned to roughly the same frequency. It's pretty hard to get a melody going.

Some researchers speculate that the bottles were used in to induce a shaman into his trance. When two bottles play at once, their overlapping frequencies produce a low, wavering tone which some think has a hypnotic quality. Andean shamans today use whistling in their rituals. And whistling bottles were placed in ancient graves, indicating they may have had some spiritual purpose.

But the fact is, nobody knows for sure. It's a mystery for some future archaeologist to unravel.


Close-up of the black whistling pot, with a decorative cat head

Want to learn more about Andean whistling bottles? Here are some sites to get you started: