South American Musical Instruments Reflect Population Relations

Ceramic figurine from the Moche culture of the northern coast of Peru, representing a human figure playing the panpipe. Credit: Aguirre-Fernández / Museum zu Allerheiligen, Sammlung Ebnöther.

Music is an intrinsic expression of cultural diversity and a fundamental part of identity, ritual symbolism and daily social interaction. The study of material culture, and of musical instruments in particular, represents a relevant and innovative tool for characterizing societies and reconstructing their historical trajectories and their relationships in time and space.

South America is home to a rich diversity of cultures and languages, which are shaped by different demographic scenarios and adapted to a variety of ecologies and landscapes. In this study, a joint project with the University of Zurich and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, researchers analyzed musical diversity across the entire South American continent with a systematic review of the different instruments found in archaeological and ethnographic records. , with an emphasis on indigenous knowledge and pre-colonial history.

Exceptional diversity of archaeological archives

The authors began by reviewing one of the most popular classifications of global organology (the study of musical instruments): the von Hornbostel and Sachs system, assembled at the turn of the 20th century. The classification breaks down into four main classes of instruments: idiophones (vibration of the instrument itself, for example a rattle), membranophones (vibration of a membrane, for example a drum), chordophones (vibration of strings, for example a guitar) and aerophones (vibration of the wind, for example, a flute).

South American Musical Instruments Reflect Population Relations

Aerophones are the most common class of instruments in South America, accounting for almost half of musical instruments in the proposed classification. Cordophones were not present in the indigenous musical history of the Americas, as they were introduced after contact with Europeans. Credit: Aguirre-Fernández et al., 2021

Gabriel Aguirre-Fernández, paleontologist from the University of Zurich and the study’s first author, began his journey into musical diversity from a macroevolutive perspective, interested in form and function. Together with Ph.D. student Anna Graff from the University of Zurich and a team of ethnomusicologists and archaeologists based in South America, they broadened and refined this classification, incorporating 40 years of documented work by the ethnomusicologist. and co-author José Pérez de Arce of the University of Chile.

“One of the findings of our systematic review is the preponderant role of aerophones for South America compared to other continents, especially in archaeological records,” said Aguirre-Fernández. “Even considering that not all materials used to make instruments have the same chances of being preserved – organic materials such as plants and bones do not keep as well as inorganic materials such as stone and stone. ‘clay – over a third of aerophones in South America were found exclusively in archaeological excavations, with no trace of use in the most recent ethnographic records. This suggests that many types of instruments have disappeared and do more part of the musical repertoire of the indigenous populations. The influence of the European colonizers, who massively disrupted the local cultural repertoire, probably plays a role in these extinction events ”, adds Graff.

Cultural and linguistic links

From a perspective of cultural evolution, the sharing of instruments can bear witness to a shared historical journey. The transmission of knowledge is influenced by two modalities: vertical transmission, with information passing within a group from one generation to another, and horizontal transmission, with information passing through contact with peers or others. ‘other groups.

South American Musical Instruments Reflect Population Relations

Marble Pan Flute, Chavín Culture from the northern coast of Peru. Credit: Aguirre-Fernández / Museum zu Allerheiligen, Sammlung Ebnöther.

Chiara Barbieri, geneticist working at the University of Zurich and affiliated with the Max Planck Institute for the Sciences of Human History in Jena, works on the demographic and linguistic history of South America. “We have found groups that speak cognate languages ​​and share the same set of instruments, and this can describe particularly meaningful connections, with a stable vertical transmission of cultural characteristics and materials,” says Barbieri, who co-directed the study. “We have also recovered east-west connections across the Amazon Basin, with groups sharing identical or similar instrument sets over long geographic distances. These findings, contextualized with historical, archaeological, linguistic and genetic evidence, have great potential to shed light on past chapters in South American history. “

“Panpipes are particularly interesting,” adds Aguirre-Fernández. “We focused on them in a case study because of their great diversity of forms and widespread presence on the continent. By analyzing the characteristics of the Pan flute in different societies, we have retrieved relationships that reflect regional and cultural areas of influence, corresponding to the northern Andes, the southern Andes and an Amazonian core. “

Digital catalogs of material culture

Marcelo Sánchez-Villagra, paleontologist from the University of Zurich who coordinated the study, stresses the importance of cataloging human artefacts in such systematic collections. Visiting museums and discussing his findings with musicologists and anthropologists, he is convinced that this work is as relevant as existing research on other artefacts, such as ceramic styles, which are more commonly studied at wide geographic scales.

“We hope to continue our study with a finer mapping of musical instruments and discuss the relevance of their characteristics for performance and music production. With an even more robust data set, it will be possible to test evolutionary questions. culture and apply advanced models to the data, ”concludes Sánchez-Villagra.


The human genetic diversity of South America reveals the complex history of the Amazon


More information:
Cultural macroevolution of musical instruments in South America, Communication in human and social sciences, DOI: 10.1057 / s41599-021-00881-z

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