Articles

A SPECTACLED CAIMAN FLUTE

WITH SOME DETECTIVE GUESSWORK

 

During the prehistoric period in tropical America, one of the most prevalent wetland jungle animals was called a spectacled caiman or also known as a common caiman.  This member of the crocodile family lived in much of southern Mexico, all of Central America and the northern half of South America then and still does today though its numbers are now much reduced.  Prior to the Europeans landing in the Americas over five hundred years ago, the prehistoric natives lived close to the land and therefore near the various wild animals. The inhabitants of the jungle regions would have existed close to the tropical fauna such as armadillos, jaguars, monkeys, iguanas, macaws and crocodiles. It is believed the aboriginals, who populated in the southwestern Mexican region known as Colima, worshipped the smallish crocodile known as the spectacled caiman as a land and water bound representative of one of their deities.  And one of their methods of devotion, as it is with us today, would have been with music.  Perhaps a couple thousand or so years ago, a Colima flautist did show glorification to his or her god with this unusual spectacled caiman flute.

 

Throughout the world, prehistoric people have used rhythmic noise making to create music as a means to confer with their gods and with each other.  It is believed these resonances originally came from animal sounds along with the human voices as well as with tool making and various natural working reverberations.  Maybe as early as a few hundred thousand years ago, an early humanoid picked up a bone left over from a meal and began tapping out a rhythm on a hollow log thus making a drum.  Caches of hollow bird bone flutes that were made about 4,000 years ago have been found both in Texas and Peru proving that these musical devices were used by the natives in the continents for many centuries prior to when Europeans “discovered the Americas”. In the region that is now known as Colima, West Mexico, in the time period of about 200 BC to AD 300, a musician must have decided he or she wanted a flute so as to be able to play melodies for his or her family and the deities.  Maybe this flute player was a member of a clan associated with the caiman and who believed this crocodile was a direct link to a god and therefore should be memorialized by being replicated on the flute.  This particular croc is now named spectacled because it has a boney ridge running between its eyes giving the impression of eyeglasses.  It is the most prevalent of all the members of the crocodile family in the western hemisphere and lives in both fresh and saltwater wetlands in the warmer and more equatorial regions of Central and South America.

 

This particular flute is considerably more unusual than most for three reasons.  First it is made of fired ceramics while the majority that have been found were made of hollow bird wing bones but, of course, the artisans in prehistoric Colima were masters at producing earthenware objects.  Second, even though it was highly burnished before firing, there was never any colored paint slip, as was common in Colima, applied over the green clay before the flute was placed in the smoldering ash to be hardened. Third and most importantly, there is only one finger hole in the body of the flute which means that the flute player could not vary the tone of what was being played – a major oddity.  The flute is 8 9/16 inches long by exactly ¾ inch outside diameter except at the mouthpiece which is a flattened 1 3/16 by 3/8 inches.  The representational caiman, rather strangely, rides the underside of the flute while it is played and its measurements are 4 1/8 inches long by 1 ¾ inches in overall width.  There is a 3/8 inch wide by ¾ inch diameter ring of black fire tempered ceramics added to the end of the sound chamber by the use of what appears to be modern glue which means this was probably done in recent times.

 

Now for some detective guesswork about this rather strange musical implement.  While researching ancient American flutes, the writer found no other examples with a single finger hole because the prehistoric music maker would have only been able to play one note.  There were, of course, ancient single note noise makers called whistles or ocarinas but they were almost always rather small being only two to four inches long and were normally shaped like birds or animals. The other ancient flutes studied by this writer, in actuality or in written texts, were all in the twelve to twenty inch long range which is considerably lengthier than this one and they all had four or more finger holes that were used for varying the tonal quality of the instrument.  This flute was legally acquired in the late 1940’s by a now deceased collector while vacationing in Colima. This was a time period (unlike today) when many countries did not seem to care if their ancient treasures were removed from their borders as long as the money paid for them remained.  The collector’s records state it was an eight + inch long flute from Colima, was dark brown fire hardened ceramics and was about two thousand years old.  Thinking more about the musical instrument and attempting to understand what would have happened over fifty years ago, this writer is of the belief that a modern Colima native (who sold the flute to the vacationer) found it, in the 1950’s, in a much damaged condition.  This impairment would have been typical for any ancient ceramic artifact that had been underground and subjected to a couple thousand years of natural soil movements.  Most of the original sound chamber end of the pottery instrument, which would have held multiple finger holes, was most probably crushed and destroyed beyond reconstruction.  Since all the tonal fingering holes would have been demolished in the probable originally twelve or more inch long musical device, the modern finder would have made the small crude oval cut, just opposite the caiman, so the wind instrument could still be played albeit with only one note.  And, that was most important for him, so he could sell it to the unsuspecting tourist as a true and actual two millennium old artifact.  The modeled caiman, two thousand years ago, would have been on the top and would have faced the flautist as the device was being played – not on the underside not to be seen as it is today. The finder was also probably able to cut away the ring at the damaged end of the flute and to glue it onto the new and shortened end of the flute so as to give it a more finished appearance (or the collector could have later acquired a ceramic ring of the correct size and glued it on the end of the flute). He then sold it to the collector and that is how it is now – a much reduced in length and with only one finger hole two thousand year old ceramic flute or maybe whistle.  Of course this is just my unsubstantiated theory and since the collector is now deceased, it cannot be verified.  I could certainly be entirely wrong.   The musical device could have perhaps been brought to our planet by ancient aliens and the animal depicted on the flute could be an xpiteoangtic space traveler from the far away planet Etimicynubcwq.  But until proven otherwise, I will still consider it to be simply a modern modified but still ancient and rare spectacled caiman flute.

 

REFERENCES:

Alderton, David & Bruce Tanner                                                        1998

     CROCODILES AND ALLIGATORS OF THE WORLD

Bourg, Cameron H.                                                                             2005

     ANCIENT MAYA MUSIC NOW WITH SOUND

Nakai, Carlos, James Demars, David P McAllester & Ken Light        1997   

     THE ART OF THE NATIVE AMERICAN FLUTE

 Noble, John                                                                                        2008

     MEXICO: THE DEVELOPMENT OF FLUTES IN NORTH AMERICA

Ross, John F.                                                                                        2002

     “First City in the New World”, SMITHSONIAN MAGAZINE, August 2002

Sadie, Stanly                                                                                        2001

     THE NEW GROVE: DICTIONARY OF MUSIC AND MUSICIANS