Listen To Lost Audio Of Extinct Native American Languages Recorded 100 Years Ago


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockJun 18 2018, 15:53 UTC

Some of these languages are now considered extinct as they no longer have native speakers. Andrew Hendren/Shutterstock

After they lay in silence for over 100 years, now is your chance to hear some unbelievably rare audio recordings of extinct native Californian languages.

The 2,800 recordings were made on wax cylinders during the first half of the 20th century. Following decades of assimilation and oppression, some of these languages are now considered extinct as they no longer have native speakers, although they are still known by second-language speakers.


Within these archaic Edison wax cylinders, there are the last remaining audio recordings of extinct indigenous American languages and even never-before-recorded tales, songs, and prayers.

However, years of mold and wear-and-tear have left the cylinders heavily damaged – some had even broken into pieces – and their recordings practically inaudible.

“The existing versions of them sound terrible. They are full of noise,” Andrew Garrett, a linguist at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, explained in a National Science Foundation video last year.

“You can make out that there is sound [but] you often can’t actually tell what the sound is."


Given their massive cultural importance, researchers at UC Berkeley were extremely eager to preserve the recordings. A massive ongoing project, called Project IRENE, has seen curators transfer all of the recordings into a digital archive with the help of a relatively new invention called optical scan technology.  


"Fighting Forest Fires", a narrative told in Salinan language, recorded in 1910.

“I see what we’re doing as creating the possibility of digital repatriation of cultural heritage to the people and communities where the knowledge was created in the first place, while still making it available for scholars,” Garrett added.

The cylinders themselves were recorded in the field by UC Berkeley anthropologists under the direction of Alfred Kroeber between 1900 and 1940. The recordings include the recitals of myths spoken by the Rumsen people, stories told in the Salinan language, and hundreds of other narratives, prayers, and songs in multiple native languages.


"Myth of Coyote", told in Rumsen, recorded in 1902.

Out of respect for their original purpose, the researchers have decided to publically release a select few of the audio clips, although they will give tribal members or researchers access to the recordings. 

“Now that about 1,500 of these recordings are on the archive, I’ve been getting a lot of requests from tribal members from a lot of these different groups to hear the audio," researcher Julia Nee, a PhD student in the linguistics program, said in a statement.

“There are some traditional songs and dances that are only meant to be performed or listened to at particular times of year or by particular people. There might be songs that are specific for women or men. Or for winter or summer or raining season or dry season.


“And if the wrong people listen to them at the wrong time, it’s believed to have negative effects on the community.”


"My Trip to San Francisco", a narrative told in Salinan, recorded in 1910.

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