There’s a 1,200-year-old Phone in the Smithsonian Collections
2013-12-13 0:00

By Neil Baldwin | Smithsonian



As a nomadic cultural historian, my subjects have led me in wildly different directions. I spent every Friday for five years in a dim, dusty reading room in West Orange, New Jersey, formerly a laboratory on the second floor of Thomas Edison’s headquarters, deciphering the blunt-penciled scrawls of the celebrated inventor. Two years after my biography of Edison appeared, I found myself laboring up vertiginous stairs at daybreak in Mexico, photographing the faded ocher outlines of winged snakes etched into stone temples at the vast ruins of Teotihuacán. The daunting treks led to a book on Mesoamerican myth, Legends of the Plumed Serpent.

Those two disparate worlds somehow collided unexpectedly on a recent afternoon in the hushed, temperature-controlled precincts of the National Museum of the American Indian storage facility in Suitland, Maryland. There, staffers pushing a rolling cart ushered one of the museum’s greatest treasures into the high-ceilinged room. Nestled in an acid-free corrugated cardboard container was the earliest known example of telephone technology in the Western Hemisphere, evoking a lost civilization—and the anonymous ancient techie who dreamed it up.

The gourd-and-twine device, created 1,200 to 1,400 years ago, remains tantalizingly functional—and too fragile to test out. “This is unique,” NMAI curator Ramiro Matos, an anthropologist and archaeologist who specializes in the study of the central Andes, tells me. “Only one was ever discovered. It comes from the consciousness of an indigenous society with no written language.”

We’ll never know the trial and error that went into its creation. The marvel of acoustic engineering—cunningly constructed of two resin-coated gourd receivers, each three-and-one-half inches long; stretched-hide membranes stitched around the bases of the receivers; and cotton-twine cord extending 75 feet when pulled taut—arose out of the Chimu empire at its height. The dazzlingly innovative culture was centered in the Río Moche Valley in northern Peru, wedged between the Pacific Ocean and the western Andes. “The Chimu were a skillful, inventive people,” Matos tells me as we don sterile gloves and peer into the hollowed interiors of the gourds. The Chimu, Matos explains, were the first true engineering society in the New World, known as much for their artisanry and metalwork as for the hydraulic canal-irrigation system they introduced, transforming desert into agricultural lands.

The artifact’s recent past is equally mysterious. Somehow—no one knows under what circumstances—it came into the hands of a Prussian aristocrat, Baron Walram V. Von Schoeler. A shadowy Indiana Jones-type adventurer, Von Schoeler began excavating in Peru during the 1930s. He developed the “digging bug,” as he told the New York Times in 1937, at the age of 6, when he stumbled across evidence of a prehistoric village on the grounds of his father’s castle in Germany. Von Schoeler himself may have unearthed the gourd telephone. By the 1940s, he had settled in New York City and amassed extensive holdings of South American ethnographic objects, eventually dispersing his collections to museums around the United States.

The sophisticated culture was eclipsed when the Inca emperor Tupac Yupanqui conquered the Chimu king Minchancaman around 1470. During its heyday, the urban center of Chan Chan was the largest adobe metropolis in pre-Columbian America. The central nucleus covered 2.3 square miles.

Today, the angular contours of ten immense compounds, once surrounded by thick, 30-foot-high walls, are visible. The compounds, or ciudadelas, erected successively by ten Chimu kings, were subdivided into labyrinths of corridors, kitchens, courtyard gardens, wells, burial sites, supply rooms and residential and administrative chambers, or audiencias.

Like the Inca, Matos says, the Chimu were organized as “a top-down society; this instrument would have been made only for, and used by, a member of the elite, perhaps a priest.”

[...]

Read the full article at: smithsonianmag.com



Related Articles
We Had No Idea What Alexander Graham Bell Sounded Like. Until Now.
3,700 Years Old: Largest, Oldest Wine Cellar Found In Near East
World’s oldest creature was 507...but scientists killed it
Listen to a Performance from the Western World’s Oldest Surviving Song
Oldest Map Of The New World Found On A 500 Year Old Ostrich Egg
Oldest known complete Torah scroll found in university library by chance
Britain’s oldest light bulb still shining after 130 years
Oldest ever Christmas sound recordings from 1902


Latest News from our Front Page

Head-on train crash in Bavaria, Germany - Nine dead, 50 seriously injured
2016-02-09 14:39
Nine people are dead, two are assumed missing and 50 seriously injured after a head-on collision between two trains in Germany's southern state of Bavaria, police said Tuesday. Altogether, 100 to 150 people suffered injuries in the collision, police say. The crash occurred shortly before 7 a.m. Tuesday local time near the spa town of Bad Aibling, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) ...
DNA discovery unearths 'unknown chapter in human history' in Europe 15,000 years ago
2016-02-09 4:31
Scientists studying the DNA of ancient Europeans found evidence of a 'major population upheaval' at the end of the last Ice Age A major and unexplained population shift occurred in Europe around 15,000 years ago when local hunter-gatherers were almost completely replaced by a group from another area, scientists researching our ancestors' genetics have discovered. The findings were made after the ...
Hackers Leak Info on 9,372 DHS Employees
2016-02-08 22:30
Homeland Security claims there is no indication that any breach of sensitive or personally identifiable information occurred Hackers released the names, positions, phone numbers and email addresses of more than 20,000 alleged FBI employees Monday only hours after leaking similar data from more than 9,000 people at the DHS. The group claiming responsibility, known as “DotGovs,” first alerted Infowars to the alleged ...
Gyms, Wikipedia, & Anti-White Racism
2016-02-08 22:16
A media-generated “uproar” following the innocent renaming of a River Falls, Wisconsin, school gym, and the blatant manipulation of Wikipedia, have served as the latest examples of the ongoing anti-white racism which is becoming endemic in society at large. As reported in the River Falls Journal, the Meyer Middle School in River Falls, Wisconsin, needed a new fitness center. To this ...
Pegida's Multi - Culti (state) Agenda!
2016-02-08 4:49
This guy raises some very interesting points regarding the recent PEGIDA launch in the UK and around Europe. Make sure to check out the videos below. The focus on the criticism descends into a Nazi accusation contest. "No no THEY are the REAL Nazi's." Pegida UK is fronted by Tommy Robinson, Paul Weston and Anne Marie Waters. They held a demo in ...
More News »