Ancient Melodies

Can national parks unlock the mysteries of prehistoric musicians?


By Amy Leinbach Marquis


They sat on museum shelves for years—skinny flutes made of bone and wood, dangling hoof tinklers conch shells fashioned into trumpets—with little more than short captions to tell their stories. They’re the Southwest’s earliest musical instruments, hand-crafted by ancient Puebloan people more than 1,000 years ago. And they revealed very little about their makers.

Until five years ago, when a PhD student from Columbia University in New York decided to focus her dissertation on two loves: music and anthropology.

“It’s really easy to view prehistoric cultures as simplistic or not equal to us in intelligence,” says Emily Brown, now an archaeologist in New Mexico. “But music helps modern people connect to people of the past in ways that stone tools or fallen-down buildings can’t do. There’s no human group that we know of that doesn’t use music in some form—it’s a uniquely and universally human thing.”

Brown started with what had already been dug up: musical instruments, excavated from 17 national parks in the southwest, preserved in museums in New Mexico and the East. But the instruments told only half the story. It would take Brown more time to analyze kiva murals and rock art that illustrate what music meant to their players.

Soon, she was catching glimpses of the creativity and spirituality that defined ancient Puebloan times. She learned that Hopi and Zuni used conch shell trumpets to manifest the voice of the plumed serpent, a deity who lives underground and caused the earth to quake and volcanoes to erupt. Hopi associated flutes with summer, flowers, and birds, while Zuni associated flutes with warfare. A whistle made from bear bone was used in a spiritual combat against witches who caused disease. Rasps, which make a sound like croaking frogs, were linked to healing and rain.

Most important, Brown revealed that music wasn’t just a form of entertainment to these people; it was their way of finding balance in the natural world.

“Since the Renaissance period, music has essentially become a spectator sport,” says Cyresa Bloom, an interpretive ranger at Aztec Ruins National Monument in New Mexico. “We sit down, fold our hands, listen, and clap politely. But to ancient Puebloans, it was integral to their daily life and ceremony. It was like an extension of their language.”

In an attempt to recreate that language, Brown crafted ancient flute replicas from turkey bones; other archaeologists even played the instruments in ruins to test acoustics. Still, it’s impossible to know what the music really sounded like. What notes did the people play, and why? How did they learn the music? Early Spanish settlers offered some clues through written accounts—one journal entry describes a welcoming ceremony that included hand-clapping and many flutists. But in their haste to spread Catholicism, the Spaniards imposed their own traditions on the region, and much of the original Puebloan culture was lost.

And lost along with it were clues to some of music history’s most baffling questions. Take drums, for example: Anyone who’s witnessed an American Indian ceremony in the Southwest knows that drums play a significant role, but Brown’s research didn’t produce any evidence of the instruments. They don’t even make an appearance in kiva murals, which typically illustrate even the tiniest musical details, like shell tinklers tied to ceremonial sashes.

“I find it very mysterious,” says Gary Brown (no relation), an archaeologist at Aztec Ruins. “Without the rhythm of the drums creating that distinctive sound, ceremonies would have provided a completely different sensory environment.”

Perhaps archaeologists just aren’t recognizing them—especially if they were made from perishable materials like baskets with hides tied over the top. Or, as Emily Brown suggests, maybe modern drums evolved from the hide shields carried by plains groups in late prehistory, or traveled north with Mexican Indians who accompanied Spanish explorers.

“The human body is a musical instrument too,” she says. “So all the singing—the work songs, the storytelling, the lullabies—you can’t dig them up, but you can’t dismiss the possibility that they were there.”

That hasn’t stopped staff at Aztec Ruins from incorporating what they do know about music into the park’s story. Ranger Bloom’s daughter, a musician and seasonal ranger in the park, is planning to play replicas of ancient instruments this summer, inviting visitors to step into an acoustic world among the ruins.

“Musical instruments help give life to these ancient sites,” says Gary Brown. “At some point archaeologists need to stop being stuffy scientists and let our imaginations fill in the gaps. It helps to make a connection with the people whose artifacts and ruins we work so hard to preserve.”

Amy Leinbach Marquis is associate editor of National Parks magazine.

This article appears in the Summer 2010 issue.

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