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The Ocarina . . . an ancient American musical instrument

The Ocarina . . . an ancient American musical instrument


What do Creek drummers do, who live in mountain cabins, when they get tired of beating drums?   Well, of course, they learn to play a variety of indigenous percussion and wind instruments.  What I found out is that even on a modest income, one can afford hand made indigenous musical instruments from around the Americas.  A couple of months ago, I purchased a frog, hand-carved from Brazilian heartwood, directly from a Moravian mission in the rain forest of the Amazon that makes the sound of a frog . . . for only $7.60, including shipping.  Apparently, there is no import duty charged on hand made indigenous American musical instruments.


This is the typical shape of ocarinas today, but many more shapes are available from Latin America.


Image result for ocarinas from the Americas

The ocarina is one of the oldest musical instruments in the world.  Some have been found in the Americas, dating back over 12,000 years.  They were originally made from giant bird eggs, but in more recent eras were carved from wood or molded ceramics. Spanish explorers took Native American ocarinas back to Europe.  From there the ocarina spread all over the world . . . although they were already an ancient tradition of China and Japan.   The name comes from the fact that Inca ocarinas played eight notes. However,  across the Americas, indigenous ocarinas can play anywhere from three to a dozen musical notes.

In the Americas today ocarinas are made in a myriad of shapes and sizes.  However, the Mayas and Creeks typically made them in the shapes of birds and reptiles.  When you see little ceramic ducks, eagles and turtles in Southeastern museums, you are looking at “home grown” ocarinas.  When you hear “bird sounds” in Maya,  Peruvian or Muskogean music, you are hearing types of ocarinas.  Depending on the size or shape of a ocarina, they can emulate almost any bird sound. 

An ocarina would make an ideal gift for your children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews.  They are inexpensive and do not become obsolete like most gadgetry and of course, do not require electricity or batteries.   Well . . . they would make a great hobby for yourself, too.


Oh!    If you hear the distinct sound of a quetzal bird filtering through the forests around the Track Rock Terrace Complex, its probably not a quetzal . . . but my new Maya ocarina from Guatemala!   LOL




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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.



    Thank you for the Amazing web site and Native American information you provide!!!

    • And thank you for what the Jackson County Creeks are doing to preserve our heritage.


    A very interesting thing about the Ocarina – in China they have an instrument called the Xun which is nearly identical. Ancient China also had a slit drum in the shape of predatory cat, just like the Mesoamerican teponatzl…and the Amazonian string zither looks just like a Chinese Guqin, with the same number of strings as the first Guqins. We also have the same type of steppe pyramids in mesoamerica and East Asia, complete with dragon-snakes lining the sides of stairs with the same number of steps, and on both sides of the ocean the temples on the top of these pyramids have three doorways.
    Eric the Flutemaker on youtube noticed that the scale of several Peruvian and Mesoamerican flutes is virtually identical to the Jiahu flute of China and the Cro-Magnon flute of 33,000 years ago in Central Eurasia.


    Fascinating. As a musician, I value this info!


    Such wonderful history here Richard, thank you. I also read other comments from your readers and was fascinated by their history. Where can I hear these instruments being played, if on Utube what would be the title?.

    • Yes, just go to Youtube and put ocarina in the search word.

      Thank you!


    Hello, just wanted to point out a factual error. Ocarinas were named by the creator of the modern iteration, Giuseppi Donati. In his Bolognese Italian diaclect, Ocarina means “little goose” due to the shape of a modern transverse style ocarina looking like a goose. If it were because of being able to play 8 notes, it would be called an “Octa-rina.” Thank you for spreading awareness about Ocarinas, but as an Ocarina player for 8 years, I wanted to make that correction.

    • Musical instruments very similar to ocarinas that were 3000 years old have been found in several town sites in Mesoamerica and Peru. I am more inclined to think that Giuseppi Donati came across one of these indigenous American instruments and refined it. Two thousand year old copper pan pipes have been found at several town sites in the State of Georgia, so these early Americans definitely knew how to play multi-note musical instruments.


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