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Was Maya Pyramid Designed to Chirp Like a Bird?

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Today
December 6, 2002
 
Clap your hands in front of the 1,100-year-old Temple of Kukulcan, in the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza, and, to some researchers' ears, the pyramid answers in the voice of the sacred quetzal bird.

"Now I have heard echoes in my life, but this was really strange," says David Lubman, an acoustical engineer who runs his own firm in Westminster, California. The Maya, he believes, may have built their pyramids to create specific sound effects.

A handclap at the base of Kukulcan's staircase generates what Lubman calls a "chirped echo"—a "chir-roop" sound that first ascends and then falls, like the cry of the native quetzal.

To Lubman, the dimensions of Kukulcan's steps suggest that the builders intended just such an acoustical mimicry. The lower steps have a short tread length and high riser—tough to climb but perfect for producing a high-pitched "chir" sound. The steps higher up make a lower-pitched "roop."


"If you have a structure with these dimensions, it will chirp," Lubman says. He has noted the same effect at the Pyramid of the Magician in the Classic Mayan city of Uxmal, near Chichen Itza on the Yucatan peninsula.

Lubman and Mexican researchers led by Sergio Beristain, president of the Mexican Institute of Acoustics, have investigated acoustical phenomena in Chichen Itza and the great ancient metropolis, Teotihuacan.

On Wednesday they presented their research at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Cancun, Mexico.

Quetzals—More Valuable Than Gold

The elusive quetzal, also known as the kuk, deserved homage. The bird inhabits the cloud forests of Central America, and its feathers, along with jade, were among the most precious commodities in Mesoamerica. To the Maya and Aztecs, the quetzal's emerald green iridescent tail feathers were more valuable than gold.

At Kukulcan, Lubman made recordings of the echo and compared them with recordings of the quetzal from Cornell University's ornithology lab, in Ithaca, N.Y.

"They matched perfectly. I was stunned," Lubman says. "The Temple of Kukulcan chirps like a kuk."

Lubman envisions Mayan priests facing a crowd at Kukulcan and clapping. The pyramid would then "answer" in the voice of the quetzal, a messenger of the Gods.

A specialist on the acoustics of worship spaces, Lubman first noticed the chirping echo in 1998 during a visit to Chichen Itza, when tour guides demonstrated the effect.

The echo reminded Lubman of the work of Steven Waller, a biochemist and amateur acoustician in La Mesa, Calif., who has observed that ancient cave or rock paintings, as in the Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon, Utah, often show up in locations where echoes or other special acoustical effects occur.

Any sanctuary that cultivates perfect acoustics is "a way of stating God's favor," Lubman says. Concert halls, too, share in the mystery.

Acoustics Important to the Maya

The quetzal echo remains open to scientific debate. "It's an interesting phenomenon," says Karl Taube, an archaeologist at the University of California, Riverside, and an authority on ancient Mesoamerican writing and art. "The question is whether it was intentional or not."

However, Taube points out that "acoustics were clearly important to the Maya." Many of the cities had open plazas for ceremonial dances where, as Mayan art illustrates, kings and rulers performed in jade and seashell belts.

"These (belts) would have made a tremendous sound as they performed dances in the ceremonial plazas," Taube says.

Initially inspired by Lubman's work, Beristain and his researchers discovered echo phenomena at the staircase of the main pyramid at La Ciudadela at Teotihuacan. The city of Teotihuacan, near the site of modern Mexico City, was founded in 100 B.C.

A handclap directly in front of the pyramid's main staircase produces a chirped echo.

Handclaps from different positions along the base of the staircase likewise trigger the echo—but with different musical tones spanning half an octave.

Local Indians, Beristain says, "told us about the other notes. It is like getting the sound of the Quetzal, but in a range of different notes. I'm sure we will observe these effects at other pyramids, like Chichen Itza," he adds.

Lubman and Beristain plan to extend their studies to other pyramids and ceremonial sites in Mexico to hear just where and how the past still echoes.

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