YEARS OLD ILMINITE OLMEC AEROPHONE? MAGIC WHISTLE?
Roberto Velázquez Cabrera
January 10, 2001
Black stone aerophone
The objective of this short paper is to
update a previous study , of march 2000, providing
additional information and comments on the black stone aerophone (Figure 1).
Strictly, it is very difficult to prove the ancient
use of these black stone. However, after reading the biography  of the
collector Francisco Beverido Pereau
and books related with his work and the olmec
culture and some searching in Internet, I lucubrated  on the possible
origin, material and use of the analyzed stone, considering the following
- It could have been made in the olmec culture from the Gulf of Mexico coast, maybe in San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán.
Some of Beverido´s works and discoveries were
made on this archaeological site, including his thesis ,
and this site is well known as one of the best ancient lapidary centers.
- Its possible origin is the preclasic,
nearly 3,000 years ago, when it is suppose that the olmec and Mexican (and American)
civilizations were born.
- The stone seems  ilminite
(FeTiO3), a natural ore for titanium. Ilmenite  is hard (nearly
6 in Mohs scale). It is metallic mate black.
Density 4.7 (g/cm3). Its fusion point is 500 C. It can be diluted with
sulfuric acid. It is very difficult to make without mechanical tools and
hard abrasives (=> 9, as silicon carbide and diamond). I know this is
difficult because I practiced the lapidary art on hard stones .
- The little stone may be an aerophone (whistle). I found It can generate loud sound with an compressed airflow.
This is the main characteristic of an aerophone. There is evidence that
similar ancient whistles have been used in Mexico and in other zones in several materials [8 and
9]. Soft stone in France, ivory in Greenland, ceramic in South America and metal in Turkey.
- The whistle may belong to an extraordinary Mexican family of
aerophones that can generate colored noise of secret use. The stone has a
similar structure and generated noise. The sound was analyzed with digital
spectrograms. It has complex non periodic frequency components. The
generated sound is very similar to those obtained from replicas of this
noisy family of Mexican aerophones. It has 3 conical holes with its centers
located in the same plane. This structure is a necessary condition for the
good operation of this very special sounding mechanism.
Recently, I got a very interesting paper
 from Ann Cyphers and Anna di
Castro on "Los artefactos multiperforados de ilmenita
en San Lorenzo" (Ilminite
multi-drilled artifacts in San
Lorenzo). Their information supports my previous expectations
on the culture and zone origin, date and material, because they are the same.
Ann and Anna comment the following
extraordinary discoveries (in quantity an
localization) of very similar (in structure) ilminite
- 6 complete stones and one broken were found in the north of
Monument 17, a colossal head located at the east of the central-south of San Lorenzo Peninsula .
- 10,000 almost all complete stones were found in the hinterland of
San Lorenzo, nearly 4 km to the south of the regional center, in the
secondary site of Loma Zapote, at one side of
the sedimentary river, possibly from the inferior preclassic.
- Nearly 150,000 or more than 4.5 ton of artifacts were found in the
site "A4 Ilmenitas", in three concentrations. The
previous sites are olmec
- 2,000 black stones without holes (including 24 broken stones with
holes and one complete with three holes) were found in Plumajillo, Chiapas .
They comment on previous papers and studies
and they provide relevant opinions. The stones could be used by selected groups
from the elite using a specializes technology. The row
material could be transported from other zones, like Chiapas. They mention several interesting possible ancient
uses of ilminites including the
following: beds and pendants for personal adornment, drill to make fire,
weights for fishing nets or for átlatl and
hammer. And they provide their own theory: to sustain the stick of a drill with
The previous uses were possible, but to do
these utility functions only one hole is required and their special 3-holes
structure and alignment is nor necessary. I used a stone with some similar
physical characteristics (hardness 5 - 5.5): obsidian (iztete), to test the hypothesis that if it can
sustain a drilling wood stick.
- The stone must be in a size adequate to be sustained by the hand (5
x 5 x 1 cm). The actual ilmenita size (3 x 2 x 1.5 cm) is not
adequate for this purpose.
- In less than an hour of operation (using an electrical drill), the
friction between obsidian and wood smoothed and polished the
internal stone resonator surface. As the internal ilmenite resnator surface is not polished, it was not used in
I made a copy of the whistle with obsidian
to test the required time to make the three holes. I spent almost 8 hours in
this process using an electric drill, an iron stick as cutter, silicon carbide
as abrasive, a reservoir for the water used as cooler and a press to fix the
stone and to align the holes. That means that the required time to make the
holes manually may be weeks or months, depending of the selected tools and
- The most relevant work to be done is to test if the ilmenites from San Lorenzo have sonic properties. I think it is likely for
many stones, because it seems they are very similar in structure.
- The discovery of massive quantities of similar artifacts gives more
importance to the studies on their properties and possible uses of
aerophones. If it is possible to test a sample of aerophones, and to
record their sounds, it is possible to use other signal analysis
techniques like sound characterization.
- It is recommendable to test all the available microanalysis (micro
wear?) techniques to see if it is possible to find recognizable small
amount of material, mechanical traces or signs related with the ancient
use of ilmenites or their
construction technology .
- The next question is about the use of their colored noise. There is
relevant evidence that ancient whistle could be used for magic or
therapeutic uses, if they are played in groups . To prove this use for
the ilmenite case is a matter of future advanced research.
There are several interesting relations or coincidences?
(see Figure 2): Near San Lorenzo, in Soteapan was
found other extraordinary aerophone that produces colored noise and it has
three resonating chambers called "Gamitadera", analyzed in a previous
paper  and; In that Zone, in Catemaco there are
healers using ancient techniques.
Map with the South of Veracruz State,
and San Lorenzo, Soteapan and Catemaco.
- Velázquez-Cabrera, Roberto, "Black stone aerophone". The
Spanish version of this paper was presented in the Computing International
Conference CIC-2000, held in the National Politecnic
the 16h of November, 2000.
- Biografía de Francisco Beverido Pereau
- Invitation to the conference
"Aerófono de piedra negra" of Roberto
Velázquez Cabrera. (http://www.geocities.com/rvelaz.geo/tesis/invitacion.html).
The invitation and my lucubration was posted in MIMForum (Musical Instruments Makers Forum)
- Beverido Pereau, Francisco, "San Lorenzo Tenochtilán y la civilización olmeca", MSc thesis, Universidad de
Veracruz, Jalapa, 1970.
- Kurin, M. And Egorov N., Field Manual of
Minerals, MIR Publishers, Moscow, 1976. With the tables of this extraordinary
Manual and the physical properties of the stone (lustre,
color, hardness, type of aggregation and density) the ilemnite
identification was almost direct.
- Sinkankas, John, Gem Cutting. A Lapidary´s Manual,
Second Ed. Van Nostrand Reinolds,
1962, ISBN 0-442-27623-0. This is my "Bible" for lapidary work.
(http://www.uned.es/cristamine/fichas/ilmenita/ilmenita.html). It provides the properties of ilmenita.
- Armengaud, Cristine, "Musique Vertes", 3. Ed. Cristine Bonneton Editeur, 1984. ISBN 2-862353-044-1. This reference was provided
by Uli Wahl. He is an expert and has a site on
Kite (Aeolian) Musical Instruments.
- Velázquez-Cabrera, Roberto. "My First Whistle". November
2000. (http://www.geocities.com/rvelaz.geo/corcho/cup.html). A study of a
whistle of this mexican
noisy family of aerophones made with a metal cup of beer and used more
than 50 years ago.
- Cyphers, Ann and di Castro, Ann "Los artefactos multiperforados de ilmenita
en San Lorenzo", Arqueología, Revista de la Coordinación Nacional de
Arqueología del INAH/Segunda época, 16, Julio-diciembre 1996. A copy of the paper and some comments were
provided by archaeologists Norberto González and
Hernando Gómez from INAH.
- Coe, Michael D. and Richard A. Diehl, "In the Land of the Olmec", Austin, University Press, 1980.
- Agrinier, Pierre,
"Mirador-Plumajillo, Chiapas, y sus relaciones con cuatro sitios del
horizonte olmeca en Veracruz, Chiapas y la costa de Guatemala",
Arqueología No. 2, 1989.
- Ancient Musical Instruments Surfaces Project. McDonald Institute
for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge. http://www-mcdonald.arch.cam.ac.uk/Annrep/1998-9/postex.htm.
Dr Graeme Lawson explored tuning- and performance-related aspects of bone
pipes ranging in date from as late as the eighteenth century to as far
back as 36,000 years ago, but it seems these projects did not include
- Garret, Steven and Stat K. Daniel "Peruvian Whistling
Bottles", JASA, Vol. 62, No. 2, August, 1977.
(http://www.statnekov.com/). It is the only paper on the field of ancient
aerophones published in this journal and I could not find other formal
paper of this kind in any part of the world.
- Velázquez-Cabrera, Roberto.
"Análisis Virtual de la Gamitadera", 1999. Study with replicas of an extraordinary
aerophone with tree resonating chambers, from the Olmec
culture of Gulf Zone. Available in Internet location: http://www.geocities.com/rvelaz.geo/tesis/gamito.doc/