Chan Chan, Peru (Wikimedia Commons). Inset: The enigmatic ancient communication device.

1,200-year-old telephone, amazing invention of the ancient Chimu civilization

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The thousand-year-old telephone, a marvel of ancient invention, surprises almost all who hear about it. Reportedly found in in the ruins of Chan Chan, Peru, the delicate communication artifact is thought to have been made 1,200 to 1,400 years ago and is known as the earliest example of telephone technology in the Western Hemisphere.

This seemingly out-of-place-artifact is evidence of the impressive innovation of the coastal Chimu people in the Río Moche Valley of northern Peru. 

Ramiro Matos, curator of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) told Smithsonian, “This is unique. Only one was ever discovered. It comes from the consciousness of an indigenous society with no written language.”

A man dressed as a Chimu elite or priest among the ruins of Chan Chan, Peru.

A man dressed as a Chimu elite or priest among the ruins of Chan Chan, Peru. ( Johnathan Hood, Flickr/ CC BY-ND 2.0 )

The early “telephone” appears to be a rudimentary speech transmission device, much like the “lover’s telephone” that has been known for hundreds of years but which became popular in the 19 th century, It was usually comprised of tin cans connected with string, used to speak back and forth; and mostly seen as a novelty.

This ancient Chimu device, described as an instrument, however, is composed of two gourd tops bound with a length of cord.

The gourds, each 3.5 inches (8.9 centimeters) long are coated in resin and act as transmitters and receivers of sound. Around each of the gourd bases is stretched-hide membrane. The 75-foot (22.8 meter) line connecting the two ends is made of cotton-twine.

The simplicity of the device disguises its implications.

The enigmatic ancient communication device. Credit: Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

The enigmatic ancient communication device. Credit: Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian 

This one-of-a-kind artifact, reportedly predates the earliest research into telephones from 1833 (which began with non-electric string devices) by more than a thousand years.

The gourd-and-string device is too fragile to physically test, but researchers can piece together how the instrument might have worked. What they must continue to speculate on, however, is how the Chimu used this ancient phone: what was its purpose?

As the Chimu were known to be a top-down society, it stands to reason that only the elite or priest class would have been in possession of such a valuable instrument, posits Matos.

The precious telephone, with the seemingly magical ability to channel voices across space to be heard directly in the ear of the receiver was, “a tool designed for an executive level of communication” said Matos.

There might have been many applications, such as communication between novices or assistants and their higher-ranking elites through chambers or anterooms. No face-to-face contact would have been needed, preserving status and ensuring security.

Like many other ancient marvels , it might also have been a device to astound the faithful. Disembodied voices emitting from a hand-held object might have shocked and convinced people of the importance and station of the upper class or priests.

Or, there are some who consider the gourd and twine object as merely a child’s toy. If such novelties are not our modern sacred objects, why must they have been believed to be religious items or priestly tools to humans of the past?

The artifact was in the possession of Baron Walram V. Von Schoeler, a Prussian aristocrat, who is less flatteringly described as a “shadowy Indiana Jones-type adventurer.” He participated in many excavations in Peru in the 1930s, and may have dug up the artifact himself from the ruins of Chan Chan.

He distributed his collection among various museums, and the artifact eventually ended up at the storage facility of the National Museum of the American Indian in Maryland, USA, where it is treated delicately, preserved in a temperature controlled environment as one of the museums greatest treasures.

Matos, anthropologist and archaeologist specializing in the study of the central Andes explained, “The Chimu were a skillful, inventive people,” who possessed an impressive engineering society. This can be shown by their hydraulic canal-irrigation systems and their highly detailed, elaborate metalwork and artifacts.

The god Naymlap on his boat, gold plate, Chimu 1000-1450 AD.

The god Naymlap on his boat, gold plate, Chimu 1000-1450 AD. ( CC BY 3.0 )

Chan Chan sculpture and architecture.

Chan Chan sculpture and architecture. (Belinda Grasnick, Flicker/ CC BY-ND 2.0 )

Comments

It's unclear in this article if the device actually works. Has anyone made a model and tested it? Do those membranes actually send a sound down the twine? If so I've got a long distance call I need to make to Macchu Picchu right now. And get Stonehenge on the line for me.

I tested it out when I was 5 years old with my younger sister. We used two tin cans and kite string and we found it could be used over short distances and with good clarity at both ends. Didn't work very well in strong winds we found; it left kind of a humming sound in the cans. Rain was a dampener too.

angieblackmon's picture

That’s amazing and the best news I’ve heard in a while! People back then, they were smart...they knew stuff we are only beginning to learn! 

 

love, light and blessings

AB

Only beginning to learn??? I knew about this over 50 years ago when I was a kid. Seems strange they cannot create a new one out of 2 gourds, some membrane and string. I doubt it would work very well with 75 feet of line though.

Don't ya think it's time the "National Museum of the American Indian in Maryland, USA" opened up it's vaults and returned these artifacts to the people they were stolen from? This artifact belongs in Peru, not the US, in some 'collection'.

 

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