Research suggests that Mesoamerican pyramids like the Maya temple Kukulkan in Mexico were designed to produce sophisticated acoustic effects, including the chirp of a sacred bird.
The Kukulkan Pyramid in Chichen-Itza, known as “El Castillo” (the castle), is one of the seven new wonders of the world. It’s arguably the most spectacular and most frequently visited Mayan site in Mexico. Constructed around 1100 A.D., the 32,400-square-foot pyramid features four stairways with 91 steps each, which combined with the single step at its entrance totals 365 stairs–the exact number of days in the Mayan calendar.
As shown in the following video, if you stand at the bottom of the steps and clap your hands you get this incredible chirping sound. Echoes off buildings are common, but not ones that distort sound like this pyramid.
Whether the pyramid was constructed to deliberately make this noise, or it happened by chance, is still a matter of debate among scientists and archaeologists.
Known for its vibrant plumage, the resplendent quetzal was revered by the Maya and associated with the feathered serpent deity Kukulkan, to whom its namesake temple is dedicated. Acoustic studies have revealed compelling similarities between the pyramid’s chirping echo and the call of the sacred bird. Just check it out by yourself with the following video:
The Maya built majestic stone cities centered around pyramid-temples like Kukulkan, where people would go to worship their gods and participate in ceremonies timed to their highly sophisticated calendar. It was probably at these gatherings that Maya priests or other leaders may have clapped their hands to invoke the quetzal’s call. Here a spanish video explaning this link between these sacred birds and the chirping pyramid.
But what exactly makes Kukulkan chirp?
When a clapping noise rings out, the temple’s high and narrow limestone steps act as separate sound scatterers, bouncing back a chirp-like tone that declines in frequency. In other words, reflections from the treads of the staircase are responsible for the echo being altered. The reason that a chirp like a bird is produced is because of geometry. The time between later reflections is longer than early reflections causing the frequency of the echo to rapidly drop by about an octave.