Did You See This?

The Wax Files

The art of recovering lost indigenous voices, preserved in wax for 100 years.

Listen closely, and from beneath the cracks and fuzz of an imperfect recording comes the sound a man chanting in a repetitive pattern. It’s a voice that comes to you across a century of time, preserved in wax.

More than 100 years ago, a Native American man walked out of the wilderness and into Oroville, California. Named Ishi, he was the last of the Yahi people, who had lived in the Deer Creek region in northeast California. Settlers flocking to the region during the gold rush killed the majority of the Yahi between 1865 and 1871. The few remaining went into hiding, successfully evading discovery for years.

When he walked into Oroville in 1911, Ishi was quickly picked up by University of California anthropologists Alfred Kroeber and T. T. Waterman, for whom he demonstrated the hunting techniques and recorded the Yahi oral traditions.

Ishi’s tales and songs, like those of other indigenous California peoples, were recorded on wax cylinders. More than 100 hours of otherwise lost human culture, 78 different indigenous languages, preserved on media no more permanent than a birthday candle. In a century’s time, many of these cylinders and their all-too-malleable grooves have been damaged by mold or other means, making regular playback all but impossible.

In the video above, from the National Science Foundation, a team illustrates its solution for preserving these priceless audio records. If you can’t find the groove with a metal stylus, try using a laser.