Was Maya Pyramid Designed to Chirp Like a Bird?

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.

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