Pre-Columbian Sounds Come Alive
By Priscilla Molina, Archaeology Curator, MBCCR,
Mónica Aguilar, Archaeologist, research collaborator
Nature was not only responsible for the resources necessary for the survival of ancient civilizations 1,700 years ago. It was also a source of inspiration for the objects, now archaeological remains, that allow us to hear the sounds of Costa Rican ancestors.
The latest exhibition by the Museums of the Central Bank (MBCCR), titled The Metaphor of Sound: The Materialization of Sound in Pre-Columbian Civilizations focuses on the archaeological investigation of the musical instruments conceived, crafted, and played by artisans in pre-Columbian times in what is now Costa Rican territory.
More than 60 instruments ‒ among them, ocarinas, rattles, flutes, whistles, bell clusters, and maracas‒ can be seen and heard in this exhibition. The end product of a complex psycho-emotional process that extracted sounds from the environment, these instruments transcended the self to acquire meaning in a social context.
The latter is the working premise behind this investigation, which combines ethno-musicology — to reinforce the socio-cultural aspects analyses —, musical psychology — to evidence the emotional significance and the behavior of individuals —, and archaeo-musicology, the study of musical archaeology, as cross-sectional elements in object analysis. The latter is complemented by multiple data references, as well as the analysis of recordings of the instruments in the archeological collection of the MBCCR.
This research brings together findings and analyses on learning styles and the human sound conversion process, as well as the different types of instruments created, the characteristics of the sound, morphology and iconography of each instrument, and their evolution in contemporary indigenous communities.
The Concept of Music
The concept of music in pre-Columbian communities differed from contemporary notions on the subject. At the time, their thoughts on sound expression were defined according to society, culture, world view, and existing emotional ties. Thus, the importance of sound was linked to cosmological and ritual needs, and not for their entertainment and pleasure value, which seems to be the prevalent concept of music nowadays
The notion of music at the time came to acquire a biological aspect, where psycho-emotional insights within cultural spaces. It resulted in musical objects that surpassed the self to be disseminated at a collective level by means of a cultural resignification process. Thus, music came to be a means of expression that reflected moods, yet was also a key element in daily practices and rituals.
Sounds not only related to music, but also served as an instrument for long-distance communication, local warnings, child lulling, calls to war, or enemy warnings. They were also used in agricultural, fertility, war, birth, alliance, hunting, and healing rituals, among others.
In order to understand the concept of music in pre-Columbian communities, one must address the main participants in their creation, identified as specialized artisans, musicians, and chanters.
On the one hand, it was up to artisans to craft the right musical instrument; its tonality, shape and tuning required to be within the expected range for its social activity, for which they made use of their great wisdom and ability. Artisans had ample knowledge in musical instrument mechanics and performance.
On the other hand, musicians and chanters were in charge of making music or sounds in given contexts, be it by playing an instrument or by singing. The latter required dancing, and played a crucial part in preserving the cultural practices of these social groups.
These actor’s participation was particularly more noticeable after 300 BC, as Costa Rican societies grew in complexity, with the beginnings of political, economic and social structures according to occupations.
Findings on Sound
The exhibit includes musical instruments from three archaeological regions in Costa Rica — the North Pacific, the Central Caribbean, and the South Pacific region —, among which ocarinas, flutes, whistles, bell clusters, maracas and rattles dating from 500 BC. to 1550 AD.
Similarly, artifacts that were not created specifically as musical instruments, yet also produced sound — such as some tripod bowls with rattles in their supports, as well as warrior maces, which were adapted to walking sticks and used to hit the ground to produce different sounds — were also on display.
The participation of specialized musicians, such as Jorge Luis Acevedo and Eduardo Oviedo, allowed to widen the scope of this research, in an effort to further knowledge on the relation between instrument morphology and sound quality in pre-Columbian instruments.
A classification of the musical notes of aerophones is among the most significant findings in this investigation. Upon experimenting with their sound, it was determined that the same note, only in its natural or sharp version, may be achieved while holding one fingerhole only, depending on air flow speed. That is to say, a single fingerhole may produce varying high and low tones.
These data, together with the analysis of instrument morphology and its relation to tonality range and purpose, showed that a group of musical instruments could produce sounds with of different tonality ranges — high, medium, and low — to make a musical group arrangement without having to resort to several instruments.
Furthermore, since the archaeological collection of the MBCCR has instruments from every region in Costa Rica, it allowed for the differences and similarities in instrument morphology and iconography to be identified. Tone variations, quantity of fingerholes, and most common instrument use, among other features, were determined, allowing for a depiction of sound in each region.
Although, generally speaking, musical instrument iconography can be summarized as stylizations of flora, fauna, and human figures, there was a clear variation according to instrument and region. It is more common to find artifacts with animal depictions in the North Pacific, including a combination of several species in a single object, while in the South Pacific, top and drum shapes are more common. On the other hand, in the Central Caribbean region, anthropomorphic figures are more common, particularly in Figurillas Santa Clara objects.
Figures of animals, such as birds, toads, fish, snakes, monkeys, crabs, armadillos, turtles, peccaries, alligators, felines, or conjoined animals, are depicted in all of the regions, following a clear aesthetic and manufacturing dimension. Figures are also depicted carrying out rituals, wearing headdresses, masks, or body decorations as they play instruments.
The concept of musical instruments as an ethnic means of expression of pre-Columbian identity changed during the Spanish contact, Conquest and Colonization periods, as well as in the Costa Rican Republican and nation state eras, and, perhaps, even to this day.
The arrival of the first Europeans to America marked a series of socio-cultural changes deriving from miscegenation and migration, among others. These changes resulted in a deconstruction of pre-Columbian music, with new instruments being added in the Colonial and Republican periods. Nevertheless, use of ocarinas, flutes, maracas, drums, seashells, turtleshells, and bell clusters is evidenced from pre-Columbian times until present day.
Indigenous groups in Costa Rica use these instruments to this day, especially in rituals, for example, in the Ngäbe Feast of Suffering, balserías (ritual stick competitions) and chanting — by the Bribri and Cabécar —, and the Baile de la Yegüita — a mestizo tradition from Guanacaste, originating in the sisterhood of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
In order to showcase the rich pre-Columbian heritage, an ample collection of ethnographic objects has been included in this exhibition. Among them are several instruments that endured despite the social changes previously mentioned, part of the hybridization process with the European culture, such as the Térraba violin — originating in Chiriquí ‒;and instruments originating in Colonial times, currently at risk of being forgotten, such as the quijongo guanacasteco and other instruments for which there are no ethnographic references nor archaeological evidence available in Costa Rica, but which may have been used in pre-Columbian times, such as the zumbador, or buzzer.
The Metaphor of Sound
The conception and construction of sound, currently known as music, in pre-Columbian communities, were crystallized in the knowledge of how, why, using which materials, and in what fashion these objects were crafted. This all to express the feelings and needs, both collective and individual, of the pre-Columbian people living in the territory currently known as Costa Rica.
Costa Rican music already boasts a link with the sound production of the first settlers in the country, since they set the guidelines on which contemporary musical construction has occurred, and which have become a sample of Costa Rica’s multicultural musical tradition.