Recreating The Sound Of Aztec Death Whistles

Scientists have recreated the sound of Aztec "whistles of death," and some of the most e-mailed, viewed and commented on stories on the Web.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MIKE PESCA, host:

Welcome back to the Bryant Park Project from NPR News. We are always online at npr.org. Some people like to go out and make their friends, to earn them, to be nice to other people, perhaps charming, perhaps have something interesting to say. Not me, I prefer surrounding myself with people who are more or less contractually obligated to be here. So, in that vein, I have Dan Pashman, I have Ian Chillag, I have Tricia McKinney, and let's just call this thing The Most.

(Soundbite of music)

PESCA: And leading us off on a collection of the most-emailed stories from around the Internet is my friend, Dan.

DAN PASHMAN: Yeah, speaking of which, Mike, I haven't gotten the check for July yet.

PESCA: Yeah.

PASHMAN: You make sure that gets to me by the end of the day.

PESCA: Note to self, send out friend checks.

PASHMAN: Most-emailed here from Los Angeles Times. Folks out in California, as of today, the new hands-free cell phone law goes into effect in California. If you're going to use your cell phone for talking or texting, you need a headset. You cannot just talk into the phone. But as this article points out, that's not likely to make the roads any safer, because the truth is that hands-free cell phones use is not any safer than normal cell phone use.

In fact, one study in 2005 found that people who are drunk don't break any slower - are not any more delinquent in their braking than people who are using hands-free cell phone devices. Basically, because your brain cannot multitask so well, it can only handle so much input at once. And therefore, when you're talking on the phone, you're distracted and you're not a good driver, even if you have a hands-free device.

PESCA: A couple of follow up questions, one...

PASHMAN: Yes.

PESCA: What the heck would a headset help you with texting? That's pretty stupid.

PASHMAN: It won't. I think texting is totally out of luck.

PESCA: OK, that's good. Two, the fact that traffic in L.A. moves no more than, like, four miles an hour, does that affect their findings at all?

PASHMAN: It does, because the most common accident caused by the fact that you're distracted and not paying attention is rear ending, because you don't respond quickly enough to brake lights in front of you.

PESCA: Yes, got it.

PASHMAN: Also, people talking on cell phones, even with headsets, drive slower, which means more traffic.

PESCA: Tricia, take us to another place, and I hope, another time.

PATRICIA MCKINNEY: Yes, I think I can. I have one of the most-popular stories at cnn.com. The headline, "Recreating the Sound of Aztec Whistles of Death."

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Let's do it.

MCKINNEY: It's actually an AP story. It's a profile of a guy named Roberto Velasquez in Mexico. He's a mechanical engineer. He's 66 years old, and he's devoted his adult life to recreating the sounds of his Pre-Columbian ancestors. And he - I guess for years, they've been, you know, unearthing mummies and, you know, digging up graves and finding these little whistles in the hands of corpses of the Aztecs and kind of not really knowing what these things were and kind of just guarding them and, you know, putting them in museums, but not really doing a lot of research on them.

Well, this guy, he's been trying to actually play the sounds, and he think that archeologists aren't really paying enough attention to the noises that these things made. So he recreates a lot of them, blows into them, tries to - some of them are really, really hard, apparently, to figure out how to make the sound come out of them.

PESCA: I wish, though, we had some approximation of what they might sound like.

MCKINNEY: Well, so, OK - so there's this picture of a little skull...

PESCA: OK.

MCKINNEY: Making this sound.

(Soundbite of whistling)

PASHMAN: Sounds evil. Trish, what were you doing in my dreams last night?

MCKINNEY: Is that - that's creepy. I mean, like, especially if you look at the picture. That's, like, that sounds like somebody screaming. Anyway, the theory is that maybe these were used prior to a human sacrifice. Nice, huh?

PESCA: I have the most-emailed story from the Toronto Star. "Truck Hauling 12 Million Bees Overturns." Yeah, I don't know if you remember back in the '80s, there was a plan to just truck MX missiles throughout the U.S. and a lot of people said, that might not be safe. They should have done the same with bees, because 12 million bees have overturned in Canada.

A couple of quotes from the article. One beekeeper described the bees as "nasty" after the ordeal. Could have also used the word bee-like, or a-bee-arian (ph). And here's another quote, and they did speak with a guy from a beekeeper association, this is an expert talking, quote, "You certainly don't want to go walking through a field of disoriented, agitated and wet honeybees." Thank you, expert.

PASHMAN: Thank you. Yeah, I wasn't sure about that.

PESCA: That's the expert, people. We wouldn't have realized that, but yeah. But they're getting the bees under control.

MCKINNEY: Bee careful.

PASHMAN: Oh, she went there.

MCKINNEY: I had to do it. Somebody had to do it.

PESCA: The other way, the other strategy for dealing with it, just distribute 12 million bonnets. Ian.

IAN CHILLAG: I have a most-read from the Seattle Post Intelligencer. This is really about - zoo-goers at the Greater Vancouver Zoo were treated to a rare display of the animal kingdom. An eagle, a trained eagle got away from the falconer. It went, for some reason - if I were an eagle, I wouldn't do this - it went to the lion pen.

PASHMAN: Big mistake.

CHILLAG: It was hanging out on a log. Some crows came up to it and started harassing it.

PESCA: Yeah.

CHILLAG: I don't know what you say to an eagle to harass it.

PESCA: Hey, baldy.

CHILLAG: But - so their cawing attracted the attention of a lion, and the lion just pounced on the thing, just tore it apart. So the zoo lost an eagle, but people got to see sort of, you know, what happens in the wild. The master falconer at the zoo, he said, you know, that's what lions do. This is the circle of life.

(Soundbite of song "Circle of Life")

Mr. ELTON JOHN: (Singing) It's the circle of life, And it moves us all...

(Soundbite of animals fighting)

CHILLAG: You know, she's a bird and they're big cats, and we all know what cats do with birds.

MCKINNEY: That zookeeper - is that Elton John, the zookeeper?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHILLAG: It is.

PASHMAN: Yeah, he is a zookeeper.

CHILLAG: He wears many hats.

PESCA: And then after giving his quote to the Intelligencer, he had to work his elaborate puppet display.

MCKINNEY: Can I ask a follow up - I'm sorry, can I ask a follow up? What kind of eagle was it?

CHILLAG: A golden eagle.

MCKINNEY: A golden. So, do they actually coexist with lions anywhere in the real wild?

CHILLAG: I don't know, Trish.

MCKINNEY: I'm sorry.

CHILLAG: No, no, it's OK.

PESCA: OK. Matt, you want to take us to the Most piece?

MATT MARTINEZ: I do! I have the most-emailed and viewed story at npr.org right now. It's a report by our dear friend and colleague, Robert Smith, about the world's smallest national park, smallest national park in the world, or at least in the United States. It's part of NPR's series on national parks. Here's his report.

(Soundbite of NPR's All Things Considered, June 30, 2008)

ROBERT SMITH: This is going to be a very short tour. America's tiniest national park is up here on the second floor of an old house in the Society Hill neighborhood of Philadelphia, and I'll show you how small it is. I can walk across it in one, two, three, four steps. What's the - I'll ask the ranger here. What's the exact size?

Mr. ANDREW MCDOUGALL (The Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, U.S. National Park Service): Point-oh-two acres.

SMITH: The name may actually be longer than the actual park. It's the Thaddeus Kos (ph)...

Mr. MCDOUGALL: Kosciuszko...

SMITH: Kosciuszko...

Mr. MCDOUGALL: National memorial.

SMITH: Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial.

Mr. MCDOUGALL: Yes.

SMITH: I guess I shouldn't worry too much about it. Ranger Andrew McDougall tells me that everybody mangles this park's name. The important thing is that you come away with a sense that it's named after a bone fide hero. Kosciuszko came over from his native Poland. He was a military engineer, and he fought in the American Revolutionary War. And to list all of his accomplishments would take, like, I don't know, six minutes, which is the length of the movie they play here.

(Soundbite of promotional movie, Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial)

Unidentified Man: Who was this Polish general that Americans cheer? He was the son of a landowning gentry and a friend of peasants...

SMITH: Or, it could take 12 minutes, if you watch the movie again in Polish.

(Soundbite of promotional movie, Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial)

Unidentified Man: (Polish spoken)

SMITH: Kosciuszko is like the George Washington of Poland, and Polish-Americans have plastered his name on everything. It's on bridges, monuments, mountains. There are cities in Texas and Mississippi named after the guy. This place, this tiny room, was the place Kosciuszko rented for seven months while he was appealing to Congress for his back pay. I mean, it's no Mount Vernon, but in the 1970s, a Polish-American businessman bought the place and donated it to the National Park Service.

Mr. MCDOUGALL: So, we kind of just set the room up to look the way it would have looked on any given day that Kosciuszko would have been here. So, it's a little sloppy in the room. There's some papers scattered around.

SMITH: Now, let's be honest. This is no Liberty Bell. They are not lines around the corner. How long can you go here without anyone stopping by?

Mr. MCDOUGALL: Well, that varies depending upon the time of the year.

SMITH: Has it gone days, weeks?

Mr. MCDOUGALL: No. There's at least one visitor per day.

SMITH: OK, if we get bored, we can always play with the interactive displays here.

(Soundbite of interactive display)

Unidentified Man: This is such a small room, such a small room for such a great man, but it was typical of Thaddeus Kosciuszko...

SMITH: So, we've been open for awhile, and nobody's come in through the door.

Mr. MCDOUGALL: We've had no visitors yet, but that's not uncommon.

SMITH: It's a waiting game.

Mr. MCDOUGALL: It can be.

(Soundbite of door opening)

SMITH: All right, clearly, if I'm going to interview a visitor to this place, I'm going to have to pull one in myself.

Excuse me, are you guys interested in going into the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial?

Mr. THOMAS CAMPBELL (Resident, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania): I think maybe a Polish revolutionary hero is probably more at the bottom of my list.

SMITH: Fair enough. But Thomas Campbell (ph) does say that the next time he comes by, he will try and stop in.

(Soundbite of door closing)

SMITH: Back inside, Ranger Andrew McDougall is still waiting patiently. It's actually one of the easier gigs in the Park Service.

Mr. MCDOUGALL: We have no shuttle bus. We have no food service. We don't have any camping facilities. Maybe we could look at it as more a quality visitation than quantity. The people who are going to make the point to come to this site are people who are going to be very interested.

SMITH: And sure enough, in the mid-afternoon, the door opens, and in walks Yolanta Kardish (ph). She's Polish-American, and she is not going to miss this tiny little corner of the National Park System.

Ms. YOLANTA KARDISH (Polish-American Resident, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania): He came to America and fought for liberty because that's what he stood for. He believed in it. In Poland, everybody knows him.

SMITH: She watches the movie, she peers into the exhibit, and then she tells me I've been pronouncing the man's name wrong.

Ms. KARDISH: Thaddeus Kosciuszko.

SMITH: Kosciuszko.

Ms. KARDISH: It's a sweet name for a military man.

SMITH: Ranger McDougall tells her that she might want to come back again. The whole place, all .02 acres of it, is going to be rehabbed, with all new exhibits and cool new artifacts, like the man's sword and a lock of his hair.

Mr. MCDOUGALL: The exhibits will really showcase Thaddeus Kosciuszko as an international freedom fighter. Or as Thomas Jefferson termed him, the purest son of liberty he had ever known.

SMITH: It's a lot of praise to fit into a very small park. Robert Smith, NPR News, at the Thaddeus...

Mr. MCDOUGALL: Kosciuszko.

Ms. KARDISH: Kosciuszko.

SMITH: Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia.

PESCA: You can get a link to that story and all the stories you heard on The Most on our website, and a correct pronunciation of Thaddeus Kosciuszko, npr.org/bryantpark.

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