Singing Stairs

By Weiss, Peter | Science News, January 16, 1999 | Go to article overview

Singing Stairs


Weiss, Peter, Science News


Does an echo at a Mayan temple pay homage to a sacred bird?

Clap your hands in front of the ancient Pyramid of Kukulkan at Chichen Itza, Mexico, and an odd echo replies. It's a quick, descending tone that might ring a bell in your memory--if you have ever heard a resplendent quetzal bird's call.

The fast-disappearing quetzal lives in shrinking mountain forest areas of Central America and Mexico, hundreds of miles from the Mayan temple. Yet its long, blue-green tail feathers adorned the helmets and robes of the kings of the Mayan people across a region stretching from present-day El Salvador through the state of Tabasco in Mexico.

Tour guides say that echoes off the massive pyramid recall the screams of virgins sacrificed on its summit. Archaeologists dismiss such sounds as accidents of the 1,300-year-old building's design. Now, an acoustics expert is making the remarkable claim that the ancient Maya knowingly planned the building to echo with a quetzal chirp as a way of paying homage to the revered bird.

"This might be the world's oldest known sound recording," says David Lubman, a consultant based in Westminster, Calif. He and other acoustics specialists agree that a cascade of reflections from the temple's flight of 92 stone steps generates the echo's sliding pitch, but only he proposes that the effect was intentional.

Lubman says that the idea of comparing the sound to the quetzal's call came to him after reading that the bird was considered the "messenger of the gods." At the October 1998 meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Norfolk, Va., he played recordings of the bird's call and the echo while he displayed their sonograms, which are curiously alike.

The pitches of both sounds fall at about the same rate from a frequency of about 1,500 hertz to less than 1,000 Hz. He suggests that the stairs' echo is, in effect, a 1,000-year-old recording of a quetzal call. "It's not perfect," he admits, "but if you listen to a Caruso recording from 100 years ago, would you expect perfection?"

Lubman's theory of quetzal homage has evoked a dissonant echo from Maya scholars who say it is out of tune with much of what is known about ancient Mayan culture and construction. Although to some it's a tantalizing speculation, the Maya researchers say they would be better convinced if other ruins also produced such echoes.

Also, Lubman needs to explain in terms of the indigenous culture why the Maya would have created the chirp, says archaelogist Karl A. Taube of the University of California, Riverside. "I don't think he's made a very good case for that."

Endowing the building with a quetzal chirp might have helped the Maya feel as if the cherished-but-faraway bird was nearby, Lubman says. …

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