Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

El Pututu

Magazine article ReVista (Cambridge)

El Pututu

Article excerpt

I FIRST TRAVELED TO PERU IN THE SUMMER OF 2009 as an overly enthusiastic freshman on her first archaeological field school. My destination was Chavín de Huántar- a 3,000-year-old temple complex in the Sierra of Ancash. I learned about the site when my professor-John Rick of Stanford University-lectured about it during my introductory archaeology course. One day he brought out the pututu.

Pututu is a Quechua word meaning snail, but it has been coopted to refer to various trumpet-like instruments including those made of cow horns that appeared after the arrival of the Spanish. This particular pututu was a classically Andean conch trumpet made of the adult Strombus galeatus shell. I looked at it with relative indifference.

Then my professor played it. The melancholy drone filled the lecture hall and reverberated offthe walls. We were all astonished to say the least; the sound had stunned all of us, and that was exactly Rick's goal. Combining archaeology with sound was completely foreign to us, but an entirely appropriate lesson in the context of Chavín de Huántar.

The archaeological site comprises a monumental temple complex with a surrounding settlement that was occupied contemporaneously. The temple's cutand selected-stone architecture is honeycombed with a network of internal spaces known as galleries. These galleries-as well as the various plazas and platforms across the site-are thought to be the stage for the many rituals that occurred during the temple's use.

In July 2001, a team of archaeologists, students and workers of the Proyecto Arqueológico Chavín de Huántar discovered a cache of pututus in a space that would become known as Galería de las Caracolas. Given the contents of other galleries, Rick conjectured that this space was used exclusively for the storage of these sacred objects. Marks of longdecayed textiles indicate that the pututus had been wrapped and stored with care. These instruments were prominent in Chavín iconography particularly in stone art, but this quantity of instruments had never been seen before; previous investigators had only encountered a few pututus or pieces of the shells themselves.

The embellishment of each instrument is highly varied. Some are elaborately incised with the complex, twisting iconography for which Chavín Period art is known, while others are comparatively plain. Each one is different-visually and acoustically. They are all still playable - we are able to produce the same sound a musician played 3,000 years ago. Each of the conch trumpets demonstrates its degree of use; these instruments were apparently used and valued for generations.

While we haven't found another cache of this magnitude at Chavín de Huántar, we are understanding more and more the role these instruments played within the Chavín "cult." The leaders of the cult convinced potential followers that their power and authority were real by bringing followers to the galleries and inducing hallucinations through the use of psychotropic plants and sensory deprivation or overstimulation. The drone of multiple instruments played simultaneously is thought to have amplified or focused the mental states of the Chavín cult intitiates.

Miriam Kolar, a postdoctoral fellow at Amherst College who was a graduate student in Stanford University's Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), studies the acoustic properties of these instruments in relation to the built space of the Chavín de Huántar temple. Studying the perception of sound in cultural contexts, Kolar has proved that the architecture of Chavín de Huántar was designed with the acoustic properties of the space and sound-making implements in mind.


What becomes an instrument for us was once a live snail-the Eastern Pacific Giant Conch (Strombus or Lobatus galeatus). It is a large, herbivorous marine snail native, as their name suggests, to the warm tropical waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean and found as far north as Mexico and as far south as Ecuador. …

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