Music of El Dorado: The Ethnomusicology of Ancient South American Cultures

    -- by Dale A. Olsen, Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2002. 291 pages + audio examples

How were the flutes of the ancient Americans of the Andes played, and what did they mean to the societies that used them?

For about 30 years, the author has been conducting the study that answers those questions in this book. He photographed, measured, and recorded the sounds of hundreds of edge-blown aerophones in museum and private collections in the Americas.

His focus is on pre-Hispanic cultures in the northern and central Andes, an area he calls “El Dorado.”1 Olsen coined the term ethnoarchaeomusicology2 which means “the scientific, cultural, and interpretive study of music from archaeological sources” (p. 8).

The two primary purposes of the book are: 1) to provide a methodology for the study of ethnoarchaeomusicology, and 2) to provide a case study of the methodology in use, leading to conclusions regarding the El Dorado area.

He has broken down this methodology into four “modes of enquiry,” illustrated by the four arms of the following chart. Together they lead to the goal of “musical knowledge” in the center:

Part 1 of the book goes into this methodology in great detail; here is a brief summary and explanation of the chart:

Music Archaeology is the science and descriptive study of the musical-cultural artifacts of a people who are no longer
present in an area. The study tools include measurements, photography and x-rays, and audio recordings of pitches.

Iconology examines how these instruments are represented in visual arts such as painting, sculpture, and coinage.

History refers to the descriptions of musical artifacts and occasions that were recorded by various people long ago. Some authors may have an emic viewpoint, some an etic viewpoint.

Ethnographic Analogy is the study of possible parallels between an ancient culture and a living culture; in this case, in reference to the use and function of musical instruments.

According to archaeological studies, edge-blown aerophones were the predominant melodic instruments used by ancient people of the El Dorado area. These include various types of flutes, ocarinas and panpipes. Other instruments found in the area include rattles, drums, and conch shell trumpets.

The first two chapters of the book focus on establishing the theoretical base and methodology for the study. Each of the five chapters that follow focuses on one instrument type which is common in many South American archaeological cultures. The instruments in these chapters are:

The last three chapters are musical case studies of three ancient cultures in South America:

For the last group above, Olsen classified 300 ceramic aerophones into twelve animal types based on their physical representation of the animal. He concludes that these musical instruments demonstrate that the ancient Tairona had a great concern for exterior details of their musical effigy figurines, but that the concept of a standardized scale was apparently not important to this particular culture.

Olsen believes that many wind instruments of pre-Columbian native Americans were used in connection with supernatural power, and examples of this theme are woven throughout the book.

Many scholars have believed that the Jesuits introduced the transverse flute in the Andes during the 17th century. However, more recent scholarship has demonstrated that pre-Columbian transverse flutes did exist in South America, and some of the ancient ceramic ones are still playable. It is likely that such flutes were associated with death rituals in pre-Columbian times. Presently, using ethnographic analogy, they are associated with Roman Catholic fiestas that have some connection to the death of Christ (such as Corpus Christi).

The author draws fifteen conclusions about the instruments. Referring to the four modes of enquiry in the chart above, Olsen states that only his conclusions based on music archaeology are made with considerable confidence. Many of the book’s other conclusions must remain as “plausible possibilities” at best, since the other three modes of enquiry cannot be easily quantified. Taken together, the four modes of enquiry provide a picture of “the silent flutes of El Dorado,” even if the picture is probably blurred. As the author states, that is better than no picture at all.

As well as providing a fascinating look into the musical culture of these particular civilizations, Olsen’s 4-part methodology is applicable to the study of ancient musical cultures everywhere. Of all the books reviewed in this special Musical Instrument issue of EthnoDoxology, twelve of them used (or should have used!) his proposed “modes of enquiry.” His methodology will become the standard against which others will be measured.

The text is enhanced with 80 photos and illustrations of archaeological musical instruments, plus a glossary of musical terms used. The 52 audio examples are available for free downloading from a website ( or Dr. Olsen will mail you a CD for a small fee.

El Dorado was the mythical “Golden One” who had a city of gold that was relentlessly pursued by Spanish explorers.
2 The term is a bit unwieldy with fifteen syllables.

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.1, No.4 of

Published by
Artists in Christian Testimony