1,200-Year-Old Telephone, Amazing Invention of the Ancient Chimu Civilization

September 19, 2015 Updated: September 28, 2015

The Peruvian telephone thought to have been made 1,200 to 1,400 years ago, a marvel of ancient invention, surprises almost all who hear about it. Found in the ruins of Chan Chan, Peru, the delicate communication artifact 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 Chimú 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. (Johnathan Hood/ Flickr/CC BY-ND)
A man dressed as a Chimu elite or priest among the ruins of Chan Chan, Peru. (Johnathan Hood/Flickr/CC BY-ND)

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 19th century. This “lover’s telephone” was usually comprised of tin cans connected with string, and was mostly seen as a novelty.

This ancient Chimú device is made 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 are stretched-hide membranes. 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 simplicity of the device disguises its implications.

This one-of-a-kind artifact, 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 Chimú used this ancient phone: What was its purpose?

As the Chimú 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.

It may have been used for 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.

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. 

The artifact was in the possession of Baron Walram V. Von Schoeler, a Prussian aristocrat, who has been less than 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 in 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 museum’s greatest treasures.

Chimú: An Engineering Society

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

The amazing constructions of the Chimu capital city, Chan Chan.  (Carlos Adampol Galindo/Flickr/CC BY-SA)
The amazing constructions of the Chimu capital city, Chan Chan. (Carlos Adampol Galindo/Flickr/CC BY-SA)

The Chimú were the people of the Kingdom of Chimor, and their beautiful capital city was Chan Chan (translated as Sun Sun), a sprawling mud brick complex—the largest such adobe in the world—and it was the largest city in Pre-Columbian South America. Chan Chan was almost 7.7 square miles (20 square kilometers). It was home to about 100,000 residents at its height around A.D. 1200. 

The entire city was made from shaped and sun-dried mud, and was elaborately decorated with sculptures, reliefs, and carvings on almost every surface.

Chimú culture arose about A.D. 900, but was conquered by the Inca around A.D. 1470. 

The Chimú telephone, and many other amazing ancient technologies, remind us that ancient cultures were capable of marvelous inventions, ideas, and creations long before our “sophisticated” modern societies dreamed them up (sometimes for a second time).

Republished with permission. Read the original at Ancient Origins.

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