Saturday, May 17, 2014


Chauvet lions, from Dawn of Art, by Jean-Marie Chauvet,
Eliette Brunel Deschamps, and Christian Hillaire.

Picture yourself standing in front of a painted panel of lions, or a bear, in a Paleolithic painted cave in Europe. The flickering light of your flame provides the only illumination and the moving shadows almost lend an illusion of movement to the fearsome predator pictured. Then, all of a sudden, you hear a roaring, growling sound. Would that not impress you? Remembering the tin-can telephone from my childhood, what could a Paleolithic shaman do with it to introduce sound to the cave paintings in a dark cave in Europe? Concealed some distance away from a panel of painted animals he could mimic their sounds adding growling and moaning to the expressive imagery. This would provide a very impressive addition to a ceremony.

An article in Smithsonian Magazine, December 2013 issue, written by Neil Baldwin, explained an amazing example of technology attributed to the Chimu culture of the Rio Moche Valley in northern Peru that would have been able to do just that.

One of the earliest examples of ingenuity in the Western
Hemisphere is composed of gourds and twine, Smithsonian
Collections, Neil Baldwin, Smithsonian Magazine
December, 2013.

“Nestled in an acid-free corrugated container was the earliest known example of telephone technology in the Western Hemisphere, evoking a lost civilization – and the anonymous ancient techie who dreamed it up.
The gourd-and-twine device, created 1,200 to 1,400 years ago remains tantalizingly functional – and too fragile to test out. “This is unique,” NMAI (National Museum of American Indians) curator Ramiro Matos, an anthropologist and archaeologist who specializes in the study of the central Andes, tells me.
“Only one was ever discovered. It comes from the consciousness of an indigenous society with no written language.”
We’ll never know the trial and error that went into its creation. The marvel of acoustic engineering – cunningly constructed out of two resin-coated gourd receivers, each three – and-one-half inches long; stretched-hide membranes stitched around the bases of the receivers; and cotton-twine cord extending 75 feet when pulled taut.” (Baldwin 2013)

Please note that I am not suggesting any connection between Paleolithic painted caves and the Chimu culture, I know there was none. I am only explaining that my first reaction to seeing Baldwin’s article was to think of adding sound to rock art. In the Chimu case, perhaps adding sound to paintings or carvings in a dim temple interior.

And while on this flight of fancy I can recall another piece of childhood technology that would have been even more effective. What was often called “the growler” (technically it is a string drum) was simply an empty tin can with a hole punched in the center of the bottom and a piece of twine affixed in it. When the twine was rosined and then pulled on while allowing the twine to slip slowly through the fingers, the resulting vibration of the can bottom made a growling/roaring sound like a lion or bear. A variation was made with a round oatmeal box and waxed string, but the metal can was much stronger and could thus be made much louder. 

Now ask yourself, could a paleolithic artist or shaman have had gourds? Or could they perhaps have formed a container out of rawhide to serve the purpose? Could they have made a drum? Did the Paleolithic people ever do this? I have absolutely no indication that they ever did (although I cannot imagine that they did not), but in my imagination I can take a flight of fancy to those dark and so impressive Paleolithic painted caves of Europe. We know that cave interiors have marvelous acoustics anyway, with echoes, whisper channels, and other effects. Now add the roaring, growling sound booming through the cave passages and chambers. How impressive is that?

In any case check out the article in the December 2013 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, and keep an eye on that excellent publication for other fascinating material as well.

NOTE: This posting is a wild flight of fantasy based upon my reaction to a remarkable Chimu artifact that was published in the December 2013 article by Neil Baldwin in Smithsonian magazine. Only the basic facts of the Chimu artifact should be attributed to Smithsonian magazine. All of the other surmise and speculation is from me personally, and should not be attributed to the Smithsonian Society, its magazine, or any of its employees or writers.


Baldwin, Neil
2013   Smithsonian Collections, One of the earliest examples of ingenuity in the Western Hemisphere is composed of gourds and twine, Smithsonian Magazine, December.

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