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There’s a 1,200-year-old Phone in the Smithsonian Collections
December 8, 2013 8:34 AM   Subscribe


 
See, now if they'd had subsidized contracts like we do today they would have replaced that thing 1,198 years ago.
posted by escabeche at 8:38 AM on December 8, 2013 [5 favorites]


If they'd had subsidized contracts like we do today, they'd have paid about a trillion dollars for service over the years.
posted by wotsac at 8:43 AM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


Don't Chimús, we'll Chimú.
posted by chavenet at 9:05 AM on December 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


He developed the “digging bug,” as he told the New York Times in 1937, at the age of 6, when he stumbled across evidence of a prehistoric village on the grounds of his father’s castle

I want this sentence to be about me so much.
posted by vorpal bunny at 9:13 AM on December 8, 2013 [48 favorites]


The unsung Edison of the Chimu must have experienced an equivalent, incandescent exhilaration...

The first telephone, AND the first lightbulb!
Win win.
posted by BlueHorse at 9:24 AM on December 8, 2013


At the same site archaeologists have uncovered the earliest evidence of domestication of the llamas que llaman.
posted by drlith at 9:31 AM on December 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


I could have read another few thousand words from the author. Has a nice, clear, enthusiastic flow. Thanks for posting!
posted by artof.mulata at 9:36 AM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


The gourd-and-twine device, created 1,200 to 1,400 years ago, remains tantalizingly functional—and too fragile to test out.

Fragile shmagile - how could you not test it out?!
posted by billiebee at 10:04 AM on December 8, 2013


It is pretty nifty what you can do with gourds and twine! Imagine what they would done with a big cardboard box?
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 10:06 AM on December 8, 2013


Imagine what they would done with a big cardboard box?
posted by Alexandra Kitty


It always comes down to the cardboard box with kitties.
posted by jamaro at 10:22 AM on December 8, 2013 [8 favorites]


Oh dang it is an OOPArt!

I am a little suspicious of its lack of provenance, combined with its perfect resemblance to the "blower" on an early 20th-century telephone. If it's a forgery, it could have been forged with ancient materials -- or perhaps just over-reconstructed with ancient materials that were not found in that situation. Still, I am but an internet commenter and this was never my field, so I'm going to assume there are more reasons to believe it is authentic than otherwise.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:32 AM on December 8, 2013 [4 favorites]


I have fond memories of the big OOPart! show in Berlin back in '94...
posted by fairmettle at 11:05 AM on December 8, 2013


How do they even know that it is meant to be a phone?

The unsung Edison of the Chimu must have experienced an equivalent, incandescent exhilaration...

The first telephone, AND the first lightbulb!


And a better claim on them than the Edison of Menlo Park!
posted by Thing at 11:33 AM on December 8, 2013


Imagine what they would done with a big cardboard box?
posted by Alexandra Kitty


Transmogrifier.
posted by ZeusHumms at 11:43 AM on December 8, 2013 [7 favorites]


Please hold the vine while we try to connect you.
posted by arcticseal at 12:58 PM on December 8, 2013 [6 favorites]


The coverage was extremely limited, but reliable. The data plan totally sucked.
posted by Random Person at 12:58 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm having a hard time buying this...I know it's the smithsonian, but I don't believe it.
posted by Annika Cicada at 1:31 PM on December 8, 2013


Could they just build a replica of the device, and test it that way? They know the materials, and possibly how it's made.
posted by spinifex23 at 2:42 PM on December 8, 2013 [1 favorite]


If they'd had subsidized contracts like we do today, they'd have paid about a trillion dollars for service over the years.

Trillion spondylus shells anyway.
posted by BrotherCaine at 2:47 PM on December 8, 2013


Is this a fraud like the crystal skull?
posted by humanfont at 3:46 PM on December 8, 2013


I'm having a hard time buying this...

I had this feeling too, it just seems so improbable. Particularly the part about the membranes. With all due respect to pre-Columbian technology of the Americas, it's just this device is so far outside the realm of what we expect. OTOH we barely know anything about this era of American cultures, so surprises aren't unexpected.

The article is well sourced to the National Museum of the American Indian and the cited curator Ramiro Matos seems legit on a quick web search. I didn't find the object in the online collection search but that doesn't really mean anything. TinEye doesn't have the image anywhere else.

Anyway, no reason to really doubt this is real, but it seems so improbable. I'd be curious to know how they dated and authenticated the object; a provenance from a "Indiana Jones-type" is pretty sketchy (Although von Schoeler's collections are in other collections).
posted by Nelson at 4:14 PM on December 8, 2013


I'm having a hard time buying this...

I buy it. Remember that in pre-Columbian America, they didn't have wheeled vehicles, either. But they put wheels on toys for kids.
posted by beagle at 5:30 PM on December 8, 2013 [2 favorites]


I dunno. It's not very hard to see someone stumbling across something like this at any point in the past 4000 years - after you've got as far as stretching membranes across cylinders for drums, you could take the next step in an observation, a bit of inspiration, and an afternoon. But what would you use it for, when you could shout as far? The article struggles on that. And there aren't any others, and there's no context, and who knows whether it's been dated by anything other than style.

It doesn't much matter - there are no real consequences either way - but a chap would like to know. Although I would like to know why the Romans never invented hot air ballooning rather more.
posted by Devonian at 5:44 PM on December 8, 2013


I'm not having a hard time believing this, but I am having a hard time believing the conjecture that this would only have been used by high-ranking officials. Just because only one set of highly bio-degradable gourds and catgut has survived doesn't mean they were not commonplace.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:08 PM on December 8, 2013


I also really wish this had linked to a catalog record or additional scholarship on this-- I think their conclusions are really interesting, but I'd love to know more background on the object or how the "phone" hypothesis won out. If there is a movement to convince writers to put in permalinks to the object record (or at least including the inventory number) when writing about museum objects, let me know, I'm 100% in favor of this plan.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:41 PM on December 8, 2013


I would love to believe but am having trouble. It was found shortly after the telephone became commonplace? This has a whiff of the old joke with the cultures digging deeper and finding more and more ancient evidence of telephones.. until Sven and Ole get on the case.

Seriously, though, I would love for this to be substantiated. But I'm not convinced just yet.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 8:47 PM on December 8, 2013


Maybe we can get Mythbusters to recreate one to see if it works. I'm sure they could find some way to work an explosion into the test, too.
posted by LBJustice at 6:50 AM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


It doesn't have to be a telephone. It could be a magic twanger. You don't shout into magic twangers, you pluck them. This would be more like texting than phoning.
posted by mule98J at 11:42 AM on December 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


That's a lot of string. How well would it work? If we do think it was for listening, I suggest it was either for spying or for baby monitoring. You gotta go out and skin the crocodile on the sunny side of the hut during nap time? You'll want to hear if the baby starts fussing.
posted by amanda at 10:03 PM on December 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


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