A painted image of a file of Mayan musicians playing rattle, ocarina, and trumpets while a theatrical scene goes on.

Mysterious whistles Confound Experts

Music has held a special role in human society for thousands of years. In ancient China, for instance, sets of bronze bells were played for entertainment and ritual purposes at court. The complementary tones produced by the different bells were a reflection of the Confucian ideal of harmony. In ancient Rome, a flute player would be present at sacrifices in order to drown any disturbances from the external surrounding. Music was also central to the rituals and traditions of the Maya, evident in the objects left in the archaeological record.

The Mayas had numerous wind and percussion instruments, including flutes, whistles, trumpets, rattles, bone and gourd rasps and drums. These instruments have been described in texts and depicted in Maya art. One of the most intriguing instruments to have been found is the Maya whistle.

Maya bird whistle made around 1000 AD.

Maya whistles have been found in several archaeological sites. For instance, eight of these whistles were found during the excavation by the INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia) at the site of Yaxchilan in Chiapas, Mexico, between 1989 and 1991. The whistles from this site are shaped as frogs, and produce a sound that resembles the noise that is made by frogs.

Left: A whistle in the shape of a frog from Yaxchilan. Right: Maya monkey whistle.

Apart from Mexico, such whistles have also been found in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Columbia, Ecuador and Peru, an indication that these regions may have belonged to one common musical sphere. For centuries, however, these whistles were perceived as curiosities, rather than musical instruments, and for a long while they were believed to be drinking vessels. Due to their strange shapes, these whistles were examined from an artistic, rather than a musical point of view, and it is only recently that their musical qualities have been given any real attention.

Whistle in the shape of a Ball Player, Late Classic Mayan - San Diego Museum of Man

Made of clay, it is unsurprising that the whistles have survived for such a long time. As clay is a highly malleable material, it can be easily shaped into a variety of forms. Thus, the whistles could be shaped like animals, humans and mythical beings. Once they're fired, the whistles harden and are ready to be used.

It is unclear as to the way these whistles were used. Seeing that great care and effort went into making these instruments, it is unlikely that the whistles were used as toys. Rather, they may have had a more important and serious function.

As some of these whistles were found in burial sites, it has been speculated that they were used during funerary rituals, perhaps by musicians accompanying the funerary procession. It has also been suggested that the whistles were used during human sacrifices. The noise emitted by the whistles is said to be capable of altering the consciousness of the sacrificial victims, possibly sending them into a dream state.

Maya vessel with a scene of human sacrifice. Guatemala or Mexico, c. A.D. 600 - 850. Were whistles used to alter the state of consciousness of the victims before death?

The shapes of the whistles may also offer a clue as to their function. Whistles in the shape of animals or mythical beings, for example, may have been placed in graves to aid the deceased in the afterlife. On the other hand, the frog-shaped whistles, such as those found in Yaxchilan, could have been used in festivals and celebrations associated with the rain god. -

Chaac, the Maya rain deity. From The Maya Book of the Dead, The Ceramic Codex.

The whistles of the Mayans are still a mystery to us, and much research would be needed before a better understanding about these musical instruments can be gained. Yet, it may be fair to say that we have made some advances. Instead of perceiving them as merely objects of art, archaeologists are now seeing them as they are - musical instruments. Through these whistles, just as the bronze bells for the Chinese and the flutes for the Romans, we may be able to catch a glimpse of the ideals and beliefs of the Mayans.


Associated Press, 2008. Archaeologists Recreate Aztec 'Whistles of Death'. [Online]

Broad, W. J., 1988. Complex Whistles Found to Play Key Roles in Inca and Maya Life. [Online]

Cabrera, R. V., 2002. Yaxchil�n's clay frogs. [Online]