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The Development of Flutes in the Americas

There is considerable debate about the early habitation of the Americas. There is some evidence that modern humans, called Paleo-Indians (or Paleoamericans), arrived in North American as early as 50,000 years ago ([USC 2004]).

Most sources agree that there were several migrations of peoples from Asia to the Americas, either across the land-bridge that existed between Siberia and Alaska that existed until about 12,000 BCE, or on two other routes that have both been open at times when the land-bridge was impassible [Jordan 2009] Prehistoric Beringia: A Beginner's Guide to the Homeland of the Peoples of the Americas. There are many artifacts from the widespread Clovis culture of 10,900-10,400 BCE, and artifacts in present-day Oregon have been dated as early as 12,220 BCE ([Dalton 2009] Oldest American Artefact Unearthed).

For an overview of the evidence and issues surrounding possible pre-Clovis cultures in the Americas, see [Patrusky 1980] Pre-Clovis Man: Sampling the Evidence.

A key link in the story was found in 2014, with the analysis of DNA from of a skeleton from 10,000 BCE in present-day Mexico that has the features of Paleoamericans originating in Siberia that came across the Bering land bridge. The DNA analysis revealed genetic signatures in common with modern Native Americans ([Chatters 2014]).

The Caral Flutes

Norte Chico is an early civilization that developed in South America, about 100km (62 miles) North of present-day Lima, Peru and about 25km (15 miles) inland from the Pacific coast ([Solis 2004]). The region was inhabited by 9210 BCE and later population centers developed into cities, the oldest being at Huaricanga in 3500 BCE. Other cities were established at Caballete (3100 BCE), Porvenir and Upaca (both 2700 BCE). The total population of the 25 Norte Chico sites was greater than the city of Sumer ([Coppens 2002] Caral: The Oldest Town in the New World).

The Pyramids at Caral

The Pyramids at Caral More information

The largest and most developed urban settlement is Caral, a city covering 65 hectares (161 acres) that included residential and government architecture accommodating about 3,000 people, planned irrigation, and a set of six stone pyramids. Construction of Caral has been dated to at least 2627 BCE and continued through at least 1977 BCE ([Solis 2001]).

The pyramids of Caral were constructed in the same century as the earliest Egyptian pyramid, The Pyramid of Djoser (or "Zoser"), also called the Step Pyramid (Egyptian: "kbhw-ntrw"), which was constructed during the reign of the Egyptian king Djoser who reigned from about 2667 to 2648 BCE ([Bard 2008], pages 128–133). The Caral pyramids were shorter (20 meters versus 63 meters (66 feet versus 207 feet)) and made of un-cut stone versus cut stone, but the accomplishments of a culture that had yet to discover ceramic pottery is remarkable.

The Amphitheatre of Caral

The Amphitheatre of Caral, by Christopher Kleihege More information

Inside the ring of pyramids lies a large sunken amphitheater, with room for hundreds of people during community gatherings. Peruvian archaeologists have excavated 32 flutes made of the wing bones of pelicans tucked into a recess in the main temple.

They also unearthed 37 coronets made of deer and llama bones ([Ross 2002] First City in the New World? and [Solis 2004]).

Music was clearly an important component of Caral society!

Flutes of Caral

Flutes of Caral, from [Ross 2002] First City in the New World?, photo by George Steinmetz

Based on the radiocarbon dating from [Solis 2001], table 1, page 726, the most likely date for the flutes appears to be 2170±90 BCE (Sample “Beta 134427 - Offering inside room on top of Piramide Mayor, Caral”).

Detail of the Flutes of Caral

Detail of the Flutes of Caral More information

These 32 flutes were analyzed in detail in [Solis 2000]. They were made from the three wing bones (humerus, ulna, and radius) of eight young, well-fed pelicans (Pelicanus thagus).

All the flutes have a oval or rectangular sound hole near the center that requires an embouchure to play. Inside the body of the flute, below the sound hole, is a septum or partition made of unfired (damp) clay that was squeezed into position and possibly formed into a triangular shape using a rod.

The basic arrangement looks like this, fashioned after Figure 3 of [Solis 2000]:

Measurements of the Caral Flutes

The dimensions above relate to the flute and the table below, with the original Spanish notation from [Solis 2000]:

  • Flute total length: «Longitud de flauta (cm)»
  • Lh: Left end horizontal (hole) diameter «los diámetros horizontal de cada orificio de los extremos distales de las flautas»
  • Rh: Right end horizontal (hole) diameter
  • Lv: Left end vertical (hole) diameter «los diámetros vertical de cada orificio de los extremos distales de las flautas»
  • Rv: Right end vertical (hole) diameter
  • Sh: Sound hole horizontal diameter «los diámetros horizontal de cada orificio central (embocadura) de las flautas»
  • Sv: Sound hole vertical diameter «los diámetros vertical de cada orificio central (embocadura) de las flautas»
  • LP: Distance from the left end of the flute to the crest of the partition «Distancia del Extremo Izquierdo-Cresta del Tabique»
  • RP: Distance from the right end of the flute to the crest of the partition «Distancia del Extremo Derecho-Cresta del Tabique»

Based on my best effort to understand these measurements:

  • it seems that the inside diameters of the each hole («cada orficio») were measured, as well as the inside diameters of the sound holes;
  • it is not completely clear what is meant by Sv, but from observation of the photographs is seems that Sv is the measurement of the inside of the sound hole along the longitudinal axis of the flute;
  • it is not clear from the text of the paper how they identified the “left” and “right” ends of these flutes.

Note also that the LP and RP measurements do not always add up to the Flute Total Length measurement, probably due to rounding errors.

Fifteen of the flutes were sufficiently intact to take precise measurements, shown here in this Table 1 from [Solis 2000], translated from the original Spanish:

Table 1 [Solis 2000]: Physical Characteristics of Caral Flutes
Flute # Wing Bone Used Length (cm) Diameter (in cm)
Flute total Left end to partition
Right end to partition
Left end
Right end
Sound Hole
1 Humerus 16.7 9.0 7.6 1.0 / 1.0 1.3 / 1.4 1.2 / 1.6
2 Humerus 16.6 8.5 8.1 0.9 / 1.2 1.1 / 1.5 1.1 / 1.6
3 Humerus 16.4 --- --- 0.8 / 1.1 1.2 / 1.3 1.0 / 1.5
4 Humerus 16.5 --- --- 1.2 / 1.1 1.1 / 1.4 1.1 / 1.4
5 Ulna 16.2 --- --- 0.9 / 1.0 0.9 / 1.0 1.0 / 1.5
6 Ulna 16.2 --- --- 1.2 / 1.4 1.3 / 1.5 1.0 / 1.5
14 Humerus 16.5 7.9 8.6 1.4 / 1.1 0.6 / 1.1 1.1 / 1.4
15 Humerus 16.3 --- --- 1.3 / 1.3 0.7 / 0.8 1.0 / 1.3
18 Humerus 16.4 7.8 8.7 1.0 / 0.9 1.5 / 1.1 1.0 / 1.4
20 Ulna 16.3 8.0 8.3 1.0 / 1.3 1.0 / 1.0 1.0 / 1.5
21 Humerus 14.0 --- --- 1.1 / 1.3 0.9 / 1.4 1.0 / 1.4
22 Humerus 13.3 7.2 6.0 0.8 / 1.0 0.9 / 1.1 0.9 / 1.2
23 Humerus 13.4 6.1 7.4 0.8 / 1.0 1.3 / 1.2 1.0 / 1.2
27 Radius 12.6 6.3 6.2 0.6 / 0.6 0.9 / 0.6 0.7 / 0.8
31 Radius 11.6 --- --- 0.6 / 0.8 0.5 / 0.6 0.6 / 0.8

The analysis of these flute continued in [Solis 2000] with the construction of a PVC replica of flute #5, on which extensive spectral analysis was done. However, to measure the pitches produced by these flutes, three of the original artifacts were played.

The frequency data (Hertz) in this next table is taken from the tables on [Solis 2000], page 7. The diagram Caral Flute <xo> indicates the flute played with the left hole closed and the right hole open. I have converted the frequency into the nearest note in IPN notation, using equal-tempered tuning and A4=440Hz. After the note, a bias above (+) or below (-) the note is given in cents. The flutes were played in the lowest register with moderate breath pressure and in the second register with more breath pressure:

Flute # Fingering First Register Second Register (overblown)
Frequency (Hertz) Note Frequency (Hertz) Note
5 Caral Flute <xx> 880 A5 --- ---
5 Caral Flute <ox> 944 Bb5 +21 --- ---
5 Caral Flute <xo> 976 B5 -20 1940 B6 -30
5 Caral Flute <oo> 1790 A6 +29 --- ---
6 Caral Flute <xx> 880 A5 --- ---
6 Caral Flute <ox> --- --- 1940 B6 -30
6 Caral Flute <xo> 896 A5 +31 1900 Bb6 +32
6 Caral Flute <oo> 1760 A6 2660 E7 +15
15 Caral Flute <xx> 928 Bb5 -8 --- ---
15 Caral Flute <ox> 976 B5 -20 2240 C#7 +17
15 Caral Flute <xo> 1020 C6 -43 1840 Bb6 -22
15 Caral Flute <oo> 1810 Bb6 -49 2740 F7 -32

Early Maya Culture

The Maya culture had an establish tradition of flutes that began long before the flowering of the Maya culture in Central America in 200–900 CE.

Guangala culture ocarina

Guangala culture ocarina More information

Single-note trumpets made of the shells of West Indian Chank (Turbinella angulata — a very large sea snail) have been excavated in burial sites in Tlatilco, Valley of Mexico. They date to 2000–1200 BCE ([Both 2004] Shell Trumpets in Mesoamerica — Music-Archaelogical Evidence and Living Tradition).

An early melodic instrument was excavated at a burial site in Cuello, Belize — a small ceramic ocarina shaped in the effigy of a bird. The instrument is capable of playing five notes and is dated to about 800–500 BCE. ([Broad 1988], [Hammond 1991], [Hammond 1994], and [Hammond 1995]).

The instrument was buried in the grave of a child, and archaeologists consider that it supports the belief that music and musical training began at a young age ([Bourg 2005] Ancient Maya Music Now With Sound, page 13).

The ceramic animal-effigy ocarina shown at the right is in the style of the earlier Maya bird-effigy ocarina from Cuello, but is from the Guangala culture of Ecuador, which flourished from about 500 BCE–500 CE.

See the Lost Ecuador web site for a wealth of information and artifacts from the ancient cultures of South American.

Here is a fragment of Mayan-style ceramic flute, 800 CE. It is from the Cobb Institute Museum, item #02-1978-012. You should be able to manipulate the image using your mouse:

Mayan-style ceramic flute, 800 CE More information

Ceramic bird-effigy ocarina

Example of a ceramic
bird-effigy ocarina Larger image

The ceramic bird-effigy ocarina shown at the right is in the style of the earlier Mayan bird-effigy ocarina from Cuello, but is from much later - Tiarona, Columbia about 1100-1350 CE.

Colima Culture, Mexico

Colima is a small region on the West coast of present-day Mexico. History of the area is divided into the Colima Culture (about 300 BCE–250 CE), followed by settlement by the Otomi (250–750 CE), the Toltecs (900–1154 CE), and the Chichimecs (1154–1428 CE) ([Noble-J 2008], page 550).

Pottery from the period 250 BCE–800 CE has been found at over 250 sites. This includes these three flutes, all dated between 300 BCE–250 CE:

Clay flute from the Colima cultureClay flute from the Colima cultureClay flute from the Colima culture

Three clay flutes from the Colima culture More information More information More information


Nasca culture bone flute Nasca culture bone flute

Nasca Culture
Bone Flute More information

Nasca Culture
Bone Flute More information

Nazca Culture, Peru

Further South from the Maya area is the Nazca culture (also spelled “Nasca”), on the South-Western coast of present-day Peru. The culture flourished from about 100–700 CE ([Silverman-H 2002]).

The two bone flutes shown on the right are in the collections of (respectively) the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, Santiago, Chile, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This recording of the left flute is provided courtesy of the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino. They note that “according to ethnographic studies, the upper holes are fingered with the index and ring fingers of the left hand, and the lower holes with the same fingers of the right hand.”

Sample of Nasca flute MCHAP 757

Click on the two images for detailed information about these artifacts.


Jaina Block Flute

A clay “block flute” of the ancient Maya culture dating to 700 CE was found at a site in Jaina, Mexico, East of Dzitbalché off the coast of Campeche ([Stevenson-R 1976], page 80). The flute was found in playable condition, with 6 finger holes, and plays a complete “Natural C” scale ([Payne 1992]).

This image appears in [Bourg 2005] Ancient Maya Music Now With Sound, page 11, re-drawn by Loli Wiesner de Bourg from [Marti 1968], page 157, and is listed as 23.5 cm (9.25″):

Jain Block Flute of clay, 700 CE

Jaina Block Flute of clay, 700 CE, from [Marti 1968], page 157

This image appears in [Stevenson-R 1976], page 180. It is listed as from the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico City and is dated circa 500 CE. The entry says that “the fingerholes … are exactly spaced 1.5 cm (0.59″) from each other and below the mouth hole is an exquisite decoration 2.5 cm (1.0″) in width”:

Jaina Block Flute of clay, 700 CE

Jaina Block Flute of clay, 700 CE, from [Marti 1968], page 157 Larger image

Multiple Flutes

This amazing instrument is from the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian, catalog #24-1025, purchased form Alfred Stendahl in 1968:

Jaina Four-chamber Flute, 400-700 CE
Jaina Four-chamber Flute, 400-700 CE

Jaina Four-chamber Flute, 400-700 CE Larger image Larger image

The card catalog of the National Museum of the American Indian attributes this to the Jaina culture, dating it to 400-700 CE.

This same artifact is listed in [Stevenson-R 1976], plate 8 as Gulf Coast Culture, dated circa 500 CE. Stevenson (page 84) lists the four-note chords played by another four-tube clay flute of the same era:

Mayan four-note chords

… and a triple flute of the same vintage, unearthed in Tenenexpan, Veracruz, and now housed at the National Anthropological Museum, is capable of producing these three-note chords ([Peskin 1992], page 13):

Mayan three-note chords

The Dresden Codex

The earliest known book that was written in the Americas is currently believed to be the Dresden Codex ([Anzovin 2000], page 197, item 3342). It is a eleventh or twelfth century copy by Maya artisens of another text that was written 300–400 years earlier, presumably of the same Maya culture ([Aveni 2000], page 221 and [Ruggles 2005], pages 133–134).

The 74-page book contains highly accurate astronomical tables, agricultural planting schedules, and scenes of music-making. This image is the earliest know depiction of a flute player in the Americas, from page 34 of the Dresden Codex:

Upper detail of Plate 34 of the Dresden Codex

Upper detail of Plate 34 of the Dresden Codex More information

Spanish Arrival

From [Yurchenco 1963]:

When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, early in the sixteenth century, they found high cultures among the Aztecs of the Valley of Mexico and the Mayas of Yucatan. From the vivid accounts of their chronicles we know that music played an important role in government, civic affairs and religion. … There were the … shell trumpet and tubular trumpets, double, triple, and quadruple whistle flutes (the only melodic instruments) and ocarinas of all shapes and sizes. Young people, trained in special schools, were employed by the Aztec priests and nobles to compose music for these occasions and to serve as court musicians.

Yurchenco goes on to talk about eradication of music, but preservation in small enclaves …

The Incas

Garcilaso de la Vega (1539–1616) was born in the early years of the Spanish conquest of the Incas of Peru. He was the son of a Spanish conquistador and an Inca noblewoman and wrote the first notable literature by an author born in the Americas.

His most influential work, Los Comentarios Reales de los Incas «Royal Commentaries of the Incas» ([Vega-G 1609] Los Comentarios Reales de los Incas «Royal Commentaries of the Incas», In Two Volumes), is based on stories and oral histories told to him by his Inca relatives when he was a child in Cuzco, Peru. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 14 of the first English-language translation by Paul Rycaut ([Vega-G 1688] Royal Commentaries of the Incas, In Two Parts, pages 48–49), titled Of the Geometry, Geography, Arithmetick and Music known to the Indians. The italicized portions are from the original:

Of their Musick

In Musick they arrived to a certain Harmony, in which the Indians of Colla did more particularly excell, having been the Inventors of a certain Pipe made of Canes glued together, every one of which having a different Note of higher and lower, in the manner of Organs, made a pleasing Musick by the dissonancy of sounds, the Treble, Tenor and Basse, exactly corresponding and answering each to other; with these Pipes they often plaid in consort, and made tolerable Musick, though they wanted the Quavers, Semiquavers, Aires, and many Voices which perfect the Harmony amongst us. They had also other Pipes, which were Flutes with four or five stops, like the Pipes of Shepherds; with these they played not in consort, but singly, and tuned them to Sonnets, which they composed in meetre, the Subject of which was love, and the Pasions which arise from the Favours or Displeasures of a Mistress. These Musicians were Indians trained up in that art for divertisement of the Incas, and the Caracas, who were his Nobles, which, as rustical and barbarous as it was, it was not common, but acquired with great Industry and Study.
Every Song was set to its proper Tune; for two Songs of different Subjects could not correspond with the fame Aire, by reason that the Musick which the Gallant made on his Flute, was designed to express the satisfaction or discontent of his Mind, which were not so intelligible perhaps by the words as by the melancholy or chearfulness of the Tune which he plaid. A certain Spaniard one night late encountered an Indian Woman in the Streets of Cozco, and would have brought her back to his Lodgings; but she cryed out, For Gods sake, Sir, let me go, for that Pipe which you hear in yonder Tower calls me with great Passion , and I cannot rufuse the summons, for Love constrains me to go, that I may be his Wife and he my Husband.
The Songs which they composed of their Wars, and grand Atchievements, were never set to the Aires of their Flute, being too grave and serious to be intermixed with the pleasures and softnesses of Love; for those were onely sung at their principal Festivals when they commemorated their Victories and Triumphs. When I came from Peru which was in the Year 1560, there were then five Indians residing at Cozco, who were great Masters on the Flute, and could play readily by book any Tune that was laid before them; they belonged to one Juan Rodriguez, who lived at a Village called Labos, not far from the City: and now at this time, being the Year 1602, 'tis reported, That the Indians are so well improved in Musick, that it was a common thing for a Man to sound divers kinds of Instruments; but Vocal Musick was not so usual in my time, perhaps because they did not much practise their Voices, though the Mongrils, or such as came of a mixture of Spanish and Indian bloud, had the faculty to sing with a tunable and a sweet Voice.

A more modern version appears in Book 2 of the 1966 translation by Harold V. Livermore ([Vega-G 1966]), Chapter 26, titled Their Knowledge of Geometry, Arithmetic, and Music:

In music they understood certain modes, which the Callao Indians or others of that area played on instruments of reed pipes. Four or five reeds were bound side by side, each a little higher than the last, like organ pipes. There were four different reeds. One gave the low notes, another higher, and the others higher still, like the four natural voices: treble, tenor, contralto, and bass. When an Indian played one reed, the next answered on the fifth or any other interval; then the next played another note and the last another, some going up the scale and some down, but always in tune. They did not understand accidentals, but all the notes fell within their scale. The performers were Indians trained to provide music fot he king and the great lords, and although their music was simple, it was not common, but learned and mastered by study. They had flutes with four or five stops, like those of shepherds. These were not for use together in consort, but played separately for they did not know how to harmonize them. They played their songs on them. These songs were composed in measured verse and were mostly concerned with the passion of love, its pleasure and pain, and the favor or coldness of the beloved.
Every song had its known tune, and they could not sing two different songs to the same tune. This was because the lover who serenaded his lady with his flute at night told her and everybody else of the pleasure or sorrow produced by her favor or coldness by means of the tune he played, and if two different songs had had the same tune, no one would have known which he meant. One might say thhat he talked with his flute. Late one night a Spaniard came upon an Indian girl he knew in Cuzco and asked her to return to his lodging, but she said: Let me go my ways, sir. The flute you hear from the hill calls me with such tender passion that I must go toward it. Leave me, for heaven's sake, for I cannot but go where love draws me, and I shall be his wife and he my husband.
The songs they made for their warlike deeds were not played because they were not for singing to ladies nor suitable for rendering on flutes. They sang them at the chief festivals and for victories and triumphs to commemorate brave deeds. When I left Peru in 1560, I left five Indians at Cuzco who could play flutes most skillfully from any book of part-songs that was put in front of them. They belonged to Juan Rodríguez de Villalobos, formerly a householder in the city. At the time of writing, which is 1602, they tell me that there are as many Indian expert in playing musical instruments as may be met with anywhere. In my time the Indians did not use their voices, because they were not very good: this must have been for lack of exercise because they did not know how to sing. On the other hand there were many mestizos with excellent voices.

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