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The Echoes Off This Ancient Maya Pyramid Sound Like Birdsong, and No One Really Knows Why

History's mysteries...
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It always strikes me as funny that there are scam archaeologists and pseudoscientists out there trying to claim that the ancient Maya didn’t really build their spectacular pyramids, but instead it was aliens or whatever nonsense they try to pass off late night TV specials. Not necessarily because of how ridiculous their arguments are, but rather, because if you wanted to get some entertainment out of the enduring mysteries of the Maya and their temples, there’s more than enough to go around without resorting to making up stories about beings from outer space.

For instance, there’s the shadow of the snake that slithers down the steps every equinox, drawing massive crowds to Chichen Itza to see this spectacle. There is also the infamous Chichen Itza “chirp”, which has been studied by scientists for twenty-five years, and still mystifies many.

The chirp is an echo which occurs when you stand at the base of the Kulkulkan Temple pyramid and clap. What is echoed back to you is a sound that many equate with the song of the quetzal, a tropical bird with great spiritual significance to the Maya.

But was that what the ancient Maya who deigned and built this spectacular work of architecture intended? Indeed, did they intend anything at all?

Unclear. Researchers have speculated that the echo is a fortunate accident that the designers may have leaned into upon discovering its effect, making adjustments to the pyramid to enhance the acoustics. Another theory is that while clapping produces the bird-like chirp, drums or the pounding of feet seem to produce an echo reminiscent of raindrops, which would also hold spiritual significance to the makers.

"Either you believe it or you don't," says Nico Declercq, a physicist and mechanical engineer who has been studying the acoustics of the pyramid. He’s skeptical of the quetzal future, but his research shows that the building was structured to enhance some sounds and muffle others, perhaps for some acoustic effect.

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