Maya were architectural sound-designer

There are many symbolic secrets hidden in the ruins of Chichen Itza, that’s for sure. There is for example the shadow of a snake on the main pyramid in a special time of the year, as you can see on the picture. During each Equinox, the snake “moves” up or down the stairs. One fact about the Mayan ruins in Chichen Itza is not very well known, but nevertheless it’s a fascinating piece of Mayan culture. The scientifical evidence for that is disputed, but for everyone who will be in Chichen Itza soon, there is a great experiment to make. Because it seems as if the Maya were the first architectural sound designers in history.

The shadow of a snake on the side of the stairs
Pyramid of Kukulkan, Chichen Itza

The experiment goes like that:
Position yourself on the lawn in front of the great pyramid of Kukulkan. Try to find a time, when there are not many tourists around, that makes the effect much more impressive. Then strongly clap your hands once. The echo that you will hear, reflected by the 91 stairs sounds like a bird. A very special bird.

Scientists, especially David Lubman, an expert in acoustics – have recorded the echo and looked at it on a sonogram. The resulting frequency picture looks a lot like the scream of the Quetzal Bird, an holy animal for the Maya. Combining the Quetzal with the shadow of a snake makes him a feathered snake, exactly what Kukulkan, Gucumatz or Quetzalcoatl means and how he is seen.


Now one could say, that it is a coincidential effect, created after the stairs have been refurbished. David Lubman argues, that he checked that effect on the not restaurated stairs as well, and also there the echo looks the same. Furthermore he has found other examples of sound-designed architecture at Chichen Itza, supposing a pattern at the whole site and therefore clear intent. He was able to find a gallery connecting two temples, which could have been used for easy communication. The galleries architecture is designed to transport the sound waves efficiently. With it, normal voices could be “transported” over a long distance.

Another example is the famous ballcourt at Chichen itza, that he had a closer look at. There he found the echo of clapping to be resembling the sound of a Jaguar, another holy animal for the Maya – and especially interesting in the symbolism of a ballgame. Nowadays just watching the ballgame court you see many tourist groups with their guides testing that claim – clapping people everywhere. Almost like it was in the ancient past. Many people were overlooking the ballgame, cheering, clapping and playing instruments, as it can be seen on several inscriptions. I will cover that in a later article however.

Topic for a later article
The Ballcourt of Chichen Itza

Now, why would we find the sound of a Quetzal in Chichen Itza and not in other Maya ruins of Guatemala or Honduras, we should ask. There are three possible reasons that come to my mind. The ruins of Chichen Itza are in extraordinarily good condition, unlike many other ruins. Maybe the same effect has been present there as well, but has vanished by erosion. Also we could think, that we couldn’t find those effects on other sites, because we haven’t looked for them yet. Lubmann found the bird sound mainly by accident. A third thought sounds much more likely, however: The Quetzal bird doesn’t live in Yucatan, only in the Maya highland, where that culture originated from. When the Maya moved to the lowlands and towards Yucatan, they couldn’t find the Quetzal there – it’s much too hot and dry for it there. It could be possible, that the Maya still wanted to have some sign of presence of this godly bird, for example for use in ceremonies. A simple clap of the priest and everyone hears the godly bird.

Even if those are not the real reasons, so far, it looks to us, as if the Maya were the first architectural sound-designers on earth of which we know of.

At last, I want to present some evidence for the fact, that we here at Tcmam are not the only ones knowing about this phenomenon. Here you can see a private video taken at Chichen Itza showing a group of people, trying to hear some echo effects. In this case, you can hear the echo roughly one second after the clap, which the group recognizes:

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