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An archaeological study of chirped echo from
the Mayan pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza

by David Lubman
Acoustical Consultant

This is a concise summary of a paper to be given at the October 12-16, 1998 meeting of the
Acoustical Society of America in Norfolk, VA.
Handclaps evoke chirped echoes from the staircases of the Pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza. The physics of the chirped echo can be explained quite simply as periodic reflections from step faces. But until now, no one has bothered to do so.

What is very interesting is that the chirped echo sounds arguably like the primary call of the Mayan sacred bird, the resplendent Quetzal. This magnificent bird, now near extinction, has for thousands of years represented the "spirit of the Maya". Spirits, in many traditions, speak in echoes. Think of the legend of Echo and Narcissus in the western tradition. Echo, lacking a body, was pure spirit.

chichenitza.jpg (27212 bytes)
Figure 1. The pyramid at Chichen Itza

A Mayan glyph from the Dresden Codex makes the connection between the pyramid of Kukulkan and the Quetzal bird. This glyph shows Kukulkan, the "sovereign plumed serpent" with a gigantic Quetzal behind him. We argue that the Quetzal bird represents the spirit of the Maya. We also argue that spirits often speak in echoes. It seems most appropriate that the spirit echo of the Pyramid of Kukulkan would speak in the echo-voice of the Quetzal."

Even today, the Quetzal plays an important part in modern Mayan culture. (Many modern Maya live in Guatemala, and in the Mexican States of Chiapas and Quintan Roo). Examples: the Quetzal is the unit of currency in Guatemala. The Guatemalan government issues a prestigious award named "The Order of the Quetzal."  The most recent recipient of this award is the great Mayanist, Dr. Linda Schele.  (Dr. Schele passed-on in April, 1998.)

Could the Maya have intentionally coded the sound of their sacred bird into the pyramid architecture? I think it is possible. In the millennium since this pyramid was built, though the plaster has eroded from the limestone staircases, the sound is still recognizable.

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The Quetzal Bird

Hear the
Quetzal in the cloud forest.
You will hear two Quetzal bird chirps (recorded in a rain forest) followed by two chirped echoes stimulated by a handclaps at the pyramid (recorded by me in January 1998). We must not expect the sounds to be identical.  Just recognizably similar. Think of a scratchy old Caruso recording. We can still recognize the voice of the great Caruso, even if it does not sound perfect. Remember that the Mayan stone recording is many times older than the Caruso recording!

Where else in the history of the world have an ancient people preserved a sacred sound by coding it into stone so that a thousand years later people might hear and wonder?

Note about the quetzal chirps:  The ancestors of the builders of Chichen Itza lived in the cloud forests" In the cloud forest, sound can be more important than vision, because one can hear father than one can see.  The acoustic channel in cloud forests is rich with the sounds of birds, insects and animals.  The "Quetzal in the cloud forest" sound file will help to familiarize you with the sound of a free quetzal in a cloud forest as the ancient Maya may have heard it.  Take the time to download this 821Kb file  (about 30 seconds at 28.8 Kb/sec). Listen to it. Turn up the volume. Then listen again to the pyramid echo. It will help you to appreciate why the classical Maya may have heard in the pyramid echo the sound of the quetzal."

Dr. Steven J. Waller has proposed that prehistoric rock art, which is usually found in echoing locations such as caves and canyons, was produced in response to the echoes, since legends from many ancient cultures describe the belief that echoes were spirit voices. See Waller's rock art web page for more information.

Send your comments to David Lubman / Acoustical Consultant

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