More than 3,000 years ago, an ancient Peruvian culture fashioned conch shells into instruments, creating sounds rarely heard in music.

Back in 2001, archaeologists uncovered twenty of these marine shell trumpets at an archaeological site known as Chavín de Huántar. The instruments, known as pututus, were exquisitely carved and remarkably well-preserved. The mouthpieces are in pretty much perfect condition, and we can still see distinct cuts into the shell's sides that were likely used as rests for the musician's thumbs.

Recently, researchers traveled to Chavín de Huántar to record the sounds of the pututus in their original context. They placed four microphones on the shell itself and the musician's body, and then they recorded every movement of the sound waves created when the pututu was played. This allowed them to reconstruct the interior of the instrument, something that would otherwise be impossible unless they were willing to pump it full of X-rays or saw it in half.


But it's how the pututus interact with their environment that's really fascinating. The instruments were all found in the site's ceremonial chamber, a giant maze-like structure with little light and lots of twisting corridors and ventilation shafts. When the pututu was played in the chamber, it sounded like the music was coming from several different directions simultaneously.

The archaeologists speculate this could have been used to confuse or even scare people during ancient religious ceremonies, particularly since the trumpet already makes such a haunting noise. Either way, I think I've discovered what instruments I want playing at all my future parties.


[Science News]