Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Music in the Ancient Andes

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Detailed accounts written by Spanish chroniclers of the sixteenth century emphasize the importance of music and dance in Inka celebrations and festivals. They describe musical instruments such as flutes and panpipes made of bone, reed, and fired clay, shell trumpets called pututos, ceramic whistles, ocarinas, trumpets, and drums, as well as rattles made with a variety of materials. These objects are sometimes portrayed as delicate instruments played with solemnity and virtuosity, sometimes as instruments generating meaningless sounds during pagan or diabolic rituals. The Inkas and their predecessors used music to communicate with the ancestors, heal the sick, and bury the dead. Music followed them in war and pilgrimages, perhaps providing them with supernatural power.


The Inkas and their predecessors used music to communicate with the ancestors, heal the sick, and bury the dead. Music followed them in war and pilgrimages, perhaps providing them with supernatural power.

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Inka musicians drew their knowledge from a millenary tradition. During the third millennium B.C. well before the adoption of ceramic technology in the Andean area, groups of musicians used wind instruments made of bone at the ceremonial center of Caral on the central coast of Peru. Caral was the seat of various ritual activities, as evidenced by the discovery of sunken circular plazas suitable for mass public assemblies, shrines with ceremonial fire pits, and caches of offerings. Thirty-two tubular horizontal flutes were discovered in Caral. These instruments, made with pelican and condor bones, could produce seven different sounds. Most flutes were decorated with engravings representing stylized monkeys, snakes, birds, and anthropomorphic figures. The discoveries at Caral proved that music was an integral part of the ritual life of Andean people 5,000 years ago.


Evidence of music in rituals is abundant in sites dating between 1000 and 200 B.C. and later. At the ceremonial center of Chavín de Huantar, engraved stone slabs surrounding a sunken circular court show elaborately dressed figures walking in procession and carrying ritual objects such as spondylus shells, hallucinogenic cactus stalks, and shell trumpets. The recent discovery of twenty shell trumpets (pututos) proved that these instruments were actually used in the monumental core of Chavín de Huantar. The trumpets are made with strombus shells obtained through long-distance trade. The shells are highly polished, occasionally engraved with complex designs, and cut at the extremity in order to form the mouthpiece. The trumpets discovered at Chavín de Huantar are worn and their engravings are polished away by repetitive use.


Shell trumpets were not the only musical instruments associated with processions in Andean cultures. On the south coast, the Nazca people used ceramic drums, whistles, trumpets, and panpipes in ritual contexts (100–700). Nazca panpipes were made of a single row of vertical, tubular pipes made with reeds or fired clay. According to scholars, they were produced with a precise tuning in mind. Trumpets were composed of a straight ceramic tube flaring outward at the end. As panpipes, they are often decorated with supernatural zoomorphic creatures executed with the polychrome slip technique. Nazca ceramic drums often represented anthropomorphic figures with a bulbous body forming the sounding chamber of the instrument (1978.412.111). The mouth of the drum, which was once covered by a stretched skin, is located under the figure that had to be placed upside down or sideways in order to play. A few centuries earlier, Paracas people used similar instruments (1979.206.1097). Archaeological investigations suggest that Nazca musical instruments were important ritual objects used during group performances at the ceremonial center of Cahuachi. They were also likely played during processions along the great Nazca geoglyphs, which were suitable to be used as ritual pathways.


Musical instruments were also an integral part of ritual processions in the Moche culture (1–800). Moche ceramic imagery shows human priests and warriors as well as skeletal individuals walking in line or dancing while playing panpipes, flutes, rattlepoles, trumpets, drums, and pututos. There is a strong connection between music and death in Moche iconography. Diverse instruments appear in a great variety of scenes related to death and the afterlife such as macabre dances, funerary processions, and erotic scenes involving skeletons. Moche whistles (1991.419.51) do not appear in ceramic imagery; however, these instruments were discovered in funerary contexts related to human sacrifice and the offering of children. Many categories of familiar objects were equipped with rattles in order to produce sound when used. They included ornaments (1987.394.595) and pieces of warrior attire such as backflaps. Ceramic objects were drinking cups and flaring bowls with empty bases (63.226.5). Vessels able to produce sounds were also made by Paracas (62.266.72), Sicán, and Chimú people. These vessels are equipped with a mechanism that whistles when the liquid inside the bottle is poured out.


The Chimú (1100–1470) represented musicians through vessels and miniature sculptures. Chimú artisans created detailed maquettes staging funeral processions and ritual celebrations within walled plazas. These delicate sculptures, made with joined silver sheets or wood inlaid with shell pieces, represent multiple characters carrying mummy bundles or offerings, serving or drinking corn beer, and playing music. Musicians play drums, rattles, flutes, or panpipes. Chimú sculpted vessels made of sheet silver also occasionally represent musicians (1978.412.219).


Music was an essential part of life in ancient Andean cultures. People played music in their homes, for entertainment or as part of domestic rituals. Music was also at the center of political and religious activities such as processions, burials, feasts, festivals, and staged ceremonies involving large groups of people.

Hélène Bernier
Andrew W. Mellon Fellow 2008–2009, Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art