Optical Scanning Technology Lets Researchers Recover Lost Indigenous Languages from Old Wax Cylinder Recordings

In an 1878 North Amer­i­can Review descrip­tion of his new inven­tion, the phono­graph, which tran­scribed sound on wax-cov­ered met­al cylin­ders, Thomas Edi­son sug­gest­ed a num­ber of pos­si­ble uses: “Let­ter writ­ing and all kinds of dic­ta­tion with­out the aid of a stenog­ra­ph­er,” “Phono­graph­ic books” for the blind, “the teach­ing of elo­cu­tion,” and, of course, “Repro­duc­tion of music.” He did not, vision­ary though he was, con­ceive of one extra­or­di­nary use to which wax cylin­ders might be put—the recov­ery or recon­struc­tion of extinct and endan­gered indige­nous lan­guages and cul­tures in Cal­i­for­nia.

And yet, 140 years after Edison’s inven­tion, this may be the most cul­tur­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant use of the wax cylin­der to date. “Among the thou­sands of wax cylin­ders” at UC Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Muse­um of Anthro­pol­o­gy, writes Hyperallergic’s Alli­son Meier, “are songs and spo­ken-word record­ings in 78 indige­nous lan­guages of Cal­i­for­nia. Some of these lan­guages, record­ed between 1900 and 1938, no longer have liv­ing speak­ers.”

Such is the case with Yahi, a lan­guage spo­ken by a man called “Ishi,” who was sup­pos­ed­ly the last sur­viv­ing mem­ber of his cul­ture when anthro­pol­o­gist Alfred Kroe­ber met him in 1911. Kroe­ber record­ed near­ly 6 hours of Ishi’s speech on 148 wax cylin­ders, many of which are now bad­ly degrad­ed.

“The exist­ing ver­sions” of these arti­facts “sound ter­ri­ble,” says Berke­ley lin­guist Andrew Gar­rett in the Nation­al Sci­ence Foun­da­tion video at the top, but through dig­i­tal recon­struc­tion much of this rare audio can be restored. Gar­rett describes the project—supported joint­ly by the NSF and NEH—as a “dig­i­tal repa­tri­a­tion of cul­tur­al her­itage.” Using an opti­cal scan­ning tech­nique, sci­en­tists can recov­er data from these frag­ile mate­ri­als with­out fur­ther dam­ag­ing them. You can see audio preser­va­tion­ist Carl Haber describe the advanced meth­ods above.

The project rep­re­sents a sci­en­tif­ic break­through and also a stark reminder of the geno­cide and humil­i­a­tion of indige­nous peo­ple in the Amer­i­can west. When he was found, “starv­ing, dis­ori­ent­ed and sep­a­rat­ed from his tribe,” writes Jes­si­ca Jimenez at The Dai­ly Cal­i­forn­ian, Ishi was “believed to be the last Yahi man in exis­tence because of the Three Knolls Mas­sacre in 1866, in which the entire Yahi tribe was thought to have been slaugh­tered.” (Accord­ing to anoth­er Berke­ley schol­ar his sto­ry may be more com­pli­cat­ed.) He was “put on dis­play at the muse­um, where out­siders could watch him make arrows and describe aspects of Yahi cul­ture.” He nev­er revealed his name (“Ishi” means “man”) and died of tuber­cu­lo­sis in 1916.

The wax cylin­ders will allow schol­ars to recov­er oth­er lan­guages, sto­ries, and songs from peo­ples destroyed or dec­i­mat­ed by the 19th cen­tu­ry “Indi­an Wars.” Between 1900 and 1940, Kroe­ber and his col­leagues record­ed “Native Cal­i­for­ni­ans from many regions and cul­tures,” the Berke­ley project page explains, “speak­ing and singing; recit­ing his­to­ries, nar­ra­tives and prayers, list­ing names for places and objects among many oth­er things, all in a wide vari­ety of lan­guages. Many of the lan­guages record­ed on the cylin­ders have trans­formed, fall­en out of use, or are no longer spo­ken at all, mak­ing this col­lec­tion a unique and invalu­able resource for lin­guists and con­tem­po­rary com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers hop­ing to learn about or revi­tal­ize lan­guages, or retrieve impor­tant piece of cul­tur­al her­itage.”

via Hyper­al­ler­gic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Down­load 10,000 of the First Record­ings of Music Ever Made, Cour­tesy of the UCSB Cylin­der Audio Archive

Inter­ac­tive Map Shows the Seizure of Over 1.5 Bil­lion Acres of Native Amer­i­can Land Between 1776 and 1887

1,000+ Haunt­ing & Beau­ti­ful Pho­tos of Native Amer­i­can Peo­ples, Shot by the Ethno­g­ra­ph­er Edward S. Cur­tis (Cir­ca 1905)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Ron Mitchell says:

    Fas­ci­nat­ing, and love­ly to hear those ancient voic­es.

    One cav­il: the video was spoilt for me by the unnces­sary and annoy­ing back­ground music, which played EVEN WHEN WE WERE LISTENING TO THE VOICES ON THE CYLINDERS, so that it was even hard­er to hear them. The mate­r­i­al is inter­est­ing enough to stand by itself; it does­n’t need s dri­v­el­ling musi­cal com­men­tary.

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