ESSAY—PRIMITIVE GENIUS

Whistling Bottles
by Tom Slattery

      Fifteen-hundred to two thousand years ago, people living along the coast of Peru made a strange-looking ceramic bottle, actually two bottles connected together, which later archaeologists called a “whistling bottle.”  The name was chosen because of a whistling sound produced when you blow into the spout.

      Scientists classified them as drinking vessels or children’s toys.  Other observers theorized that they were musical instruments, or meditation devices used for psychic or spiritual healing.

      Whistling bottles were found only along the coast of present-day Peru.  At least one pot has a fish sculpted into it.  It would seem that if these dual pottery flasks had a musical value they also would have been found inland, where the real center of Incan civilization developed.

      This information came to me after I had discovered these strange objects while wandering through the Lowie Museum on the University of California’s Berkeley campus.  At the time I was studying my Japanese language cards.  The Lowie Museum is not devoted to Japanese artifacts, but it is a nice place to walk through after burdening the mind with kanji characters.

      I looked up, finally, at a whistling bottle.  A monkey sculpted into one of the flasks wrapped its tail around the other.  On impulse, I sketched this on the back of the day’s Japanese lesson because its curious use of clay seemed to pose a question.  I would take it home and think about it.

      What happened was one of those wonderful flashes of creativity that discredits conscious programming and the carefully developed thought processes we call the conscious mind.  I went home and slept on it long and deep.  Not long after waking, it came to me in a flash—the whistling bottle could have been an ancient device for making drinking water from seawater.

      From that flash I began to construct the logic of it.  One of the bottles is sealed, the other open.  Now why did they do that?  I rolled my sketch over upside down.

      Ah!  The flasks, if immersed in seawater up to the connecting tube, will let brine in only on the open side, and only up to a point below the connecting tube.  Then the sunlight does its work.  Water evaporates inside the whistling bottle.  Water vapor is a gas, and as a gas it obeys certain physical laws; for instance, it distributes itself with equal density through any volume containing it.  The water vapor passes through the tube and condenses on the walls of the sealed bottle, running down the walls to collect as drinking (distilled) water.

      And it did.  I made a plastic “whistling bottle” out of some old plastic bottles, connecting them with a tube cut from a smaller bottle.  I glued them together and sealed the cap on one side with waterproof airplane cement.  I now had the world’s first semi-plastic whistling bottle.

      I set the contraption in a pan of simulated seawater on the room of my Berkeley apartment, and the summer sun distilled me a couple tablespoons of water.  But my education was not over.  The whistling bottle made drinking water from seawater, but this does not prove that the ancient people who lived on the Pacific coast of South America used their carefully crafted whistling bottles for distillation.

      “Consider what would happen,” said a friend, “if someone came up to you with proof that the Irish harp was really meant to hang washing on—and then hung washing on one to prove it.

      The people at the Lowie Museum seemed affronted at my theory.  My idea—even my proof—found a cool reception.  One anthropologist warned me that “the Museum has very conservative ideas about these things.

Author's notes:

     This article originally appeared in the August 1978 edition of EastWest Journal.  Illustration functionally edited and improved from author's sketch by EastWest Journal staff artist Bill Burns.

     I was living in the Roachedale Student Co-op Apartments on Haste Street in Berkeley the summer of 1977.  One of the other students living in the four-student unit had left a half-filled wine bottle used for watering his outdoor plants in the sun.  And water had been evaporating out of it all morning, but some of the water had condensed inside the air-cooled unfilled upper half of the bottle and was collecting in droplets and running down.  I went inside, made myself a cup of coffee, and then the idea of a possible ancient desalinization device hit me.  And while the small blackware ceramic bottles would minimally work and possibly keep a stranded fisherman alive off the terribly dry coast of Peru, I suspected that these may have only been ceremonial models of large devices made, possibly, out of large wax-or-pitch-waterproofed straw baskets.  Those could drift along beside a Kon Tiki type raft and supply drinking water to a fish-eating crew for months or even years.

     I made a plastic "whistling bottle" out of a couple old medicine bottles, a piece of plastic tubing, and some rubber cement.  I sealed the cap of one of the medicine bottles with rubber cement, just to make sure that no water might seep into it.  Then I filled the communal dishpan with water, dumped a lot of salt into it, and left it on the Co-op roof in the sun for several hours.  Somewhat to my surprise, it worked.  There was fresh water in the sealed side. I drank some of it, just to be sure.

     I sent the article to Kon Tiki author Thor Heyerdahl as a possible way that people living on the West Coast of South America could have journeyed to Easter Island with an emergency drinking water supply made from sea water.  He sent me a postcard back saying that he liked the
idea.

END

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