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Land of winds > Instruments > Instruments | Issue 02. Sep.-Oct.2010
By Edgardo Civallero | Sara Plaza

Flautas de Caral
Andean aerophones: history (I)

Wind instruments (aerophones, from gr. ἀήρ “air” and φωνή “voice”) were the musical elements most widely spread in pre-Colombian America. Together with the percussion ones (membranophones and idiophones), they were the foundation stone that would determine the structure whereon the music of the native societies would begin to grow. The huge diversity of Andean aerophones became obvious in the previous issue (see), which included an approach to the organology of the Andes. The following lines will deal with its historical development.
The flutes from Caral-Supe are among the earliest archaeological examples of air instruments in the Andes. They were found in 1999 in the sacred city of Caral located in the Supe Valley, 182 km north to Lima, and belong to an ancient culture 4500-year old. This finding consists of 32 transverse flutes considered the oldest in America. They are made of pelican wing bones with inside partition wall of clay, oval or rectangular mouth pieces and lavish deep hand cut decoration.

[Photograph 01] [Photograph 02]
The flutes from Caral-Supe: Articles [es] 01 - 02 - 03


All pre-Hispanic Andean societies after Caral-Supe have provided researchers with a good number of archaeological remains of air instruments, which suggest how those instruments might have sounded. Chimu and Chancay cultures of Peru (1500-100 BC) have left excellent examples of tiny silver pan flutes with 4-5 pipes, whistling bottles made of clay rich in decorative details and several zoomorphic ocarinas. Contemporary with those cultures, Arica and Mapuche (1500-800 BC) peoples used ocarinas and reed-sounded panpipes in the former case and heavy stone whistles pifilka and pan flutes piloilo in the latter. Supposedly, the present Mapuche trumpet trutruka would also be of pre-Hispanic origin having survived until our days.

Chimú culture, in Wikipedia.
Chancay culture, in Wikipedia [es].
Chinchorro culture (Arica), in Wikipedia [es].
Mapuche, in Wikipedia.


For its part, Wari culture (1000-500 BC) of Peru abounded in whistling bottles beautifully decorated and silver representations of different instruments: panpipes consisting of several pipes, 2- and 3-hole transverse flutes and straight trumpets.

Wari culture, in Wikipedia.

Musico mochica moche
Moche or Mochica people (Peru, 800-100 BC) had a lot of musical instruments, and some of them have reached present time, either as archaeological remains or as representations on pictorial and engraved pottery. Such evidence includes 5- and 7-pipes pan flutes made of reed, clay and silver, shell trumpets and conch-shaped clay horns, straight and curved clay trumpets, whistles, globular flutes and ocarinas. There are many representations of musicians on the Moche pottery which might well indicate the importance of music in pre-Hispanic Andean societies.

[Photograph 04] [Photograph 05] [Photograph 06] [Photograph 07]
Moche, in Wikipedia.
El arte mochica - Música y danza”. En “Los mochicas”, by Rafael Larco Hoyle.


Nazca culture (Peru, 600 BC-400 AD) left numerous examples of antaras (pan flutes with one row of pipes) made of clay, perhaps the most famous archaeological instruments of the Andes. In addition, this people played notched flutes made of reed and bone (some of them with exquisite engravings), ocarinas and ornitomorphic globular flutes.

[Photograph 07] [Photograph 08]
Nazca culture, in Wikipedia.
Orígenes del siku”. An article by Américo Valenzuela Chacón [es].


Caracola Chavín
Centuries later, Chavín culture (Peru, 200-900 AD) spread the use of the shells of sea snails as trumpets. In 2001, in the “Caracolas Gallery” of the Chavín de Huantar archaeological site it was discovered the largest single group of Strombus shells in Peru: 20 altogether. Their popularity becomes clear looking at the bass-reliefs on the walls of the Circular Plaza of Chavín de Huantar. Archaeologists also found clay representations of conches, golden double trumpets and anthropomorphic clay flutes.

[Photograph 09]
Chavín culture, in Wikipedia.
Chavín de Huantar, in Wikipedia.
Pututus, quepas y bocinas: bramidos a lo largo de los Andes”. An article by Edgardo Civallero [es].


There are aerophones remains in many pre-Hispanic settlement and burial locations. The Vicús built wonderful whistling bottles and pan flutes performers are depicted on the Paracas’ vessels. However, there is little archaeological evidence of instruments in a number of other contemporary cultures, and the reason might be that those peoples would have made their instruments of perishable materials.
The most detailed record of pre-Hispanic sound elements belongs to the Incas. The Spanish chroniclers described with a wealth of detail both their flutes and the festival where those instruments where performed, as well as the dancing and singing to accompany those celebrations.
However, that is another story which will be told in the next issue.

Pre-Columbian musical instruments, in The Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
Sonidos de América, in The Chilean Museum of Pre-Columbian Art [es].
[Video 01] [Video 02] [Video 03]
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