In the 1990s, archaeologists in Mexico City unearthed a 500-year-old skeleton near an ancient Aztec temple — a victim of human sacrifice. A grisly discovery, yes, but perhaps even more chilling was what the beheaded skeleton was holding: two small whistles, one in the shape of a skull. When a researcher blew into one of the tiny instruments, the horrifying sounds that emerged immediately captivated imaginations. One scholar described the noise as “a shriek of death.”
The dreadful, high-pitched sound of the whistle is perhaps most comparable to a human scream. “There are different air streams generated within the structure of these instruments, which then diametrically hits against each other,” said Arnd Adje Both, a music archaeologist who has examined the whistle. “And thus the Aztecs were able to produce a very shrill and noisy sound.”
The true purpose of these artefacts has baffled experts. Were they used to terrorise enemies in warfare? Aztec warriors were known to beat wooden drums as they advanced into battle — might they also have blown these ghastly whistles? “You can imagine the frightening sound if you had 200 or 300 or 5,000 warriors blowing these instruments,” said Jaime Arredondo, an art historian and professor of Mesoamerican and Latino studies at New York University. “That would be extremely intimidating.”
Another theory gave the instruments a more peaceful purpose. They may have been used to induce trances as part of healing rituals — rather than to terrify, the whistle may have been used to bring comfort.
But perhaps the mostly likely theory of the instruments involves their connection to human sacrifice. In the third episode of our series “Sound Mysteries,” we explore the unnerving case of the Aztec death whistle.