Decades of wear and tear haven’t been kind to the 2,713 wax cylinders in UC Berkeley’s Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology, which linguists and anthropologists have used for over a century to study the languages and cultural practices of Native California. But a new project promises to revitalize these old, fragile recordings — the first of which was recorded by famed anthropologist Alfred Kroeber in 1901 — with cutting-edge optical scanning technology.
The prospect excites scholars and Native communities because the collection itself is a trove of Native American recordings, particularly from California — ceremonies, songs and traditional stories that capture slices of cultures that are in many cases endangered or extinct. Among its best known is Ishi’s retelling of the Story of Wood Duck, the only recording of the extinct Yahi language. Ishi was recorded between 1911 and 1914 by Berkeley anthropologist T.T. Waterman, who began translating the story but didn’t finish because the fuzzy sound quality made the words too difficult to discern.
“This is a record of native Californian speech and mythology and worldview that was very important to Ishi, the only recording of this that we know of,” says Hearst anthropologist Ira Jacknis, “and it’s still partially untranslated.” So Jacknis is excited about the potential of a remastered recording: With it, linguists can finally translate the whole thing. “It would let us get so much closer to what Ishi was saying,” he says.