Co.Design

3-D Prints Of Vocal Chords Let Extinct Mammoths Roar Again

A quest to reproduce a mammoth's voice led a student on an incredible data-collecting journey to piece together bits of information from all corners of science.

Scientists employ all sorts of techniques to introduce us to extinct animals in the context of a museum, but for the most part, those techniques are largely visual. We usually don't get to learn how they smelled, for example, or how their skin felt, ignoring a whole range of senses during what should be a transformative experience. Filling in those gaps is the quest of Royal College of Art grad student Marguerite Humeau, who became fascinated with the idea of creating reproductions of the vocal tracts of extinct animals to bring them back to life through sound.

As she embarked upon her research, she learned a curious fact about the recovery of extinct animals: Because the vocal tract is made of soft tissue, it does not fossilize. The data she was looking for, like 3-D scans of the vocal tract and windpipe, simply did not exist. "When I discovered that, it became a personal obsession. I had to recreate this data in some way," she tells Co.Design.

"I created bridges between areas of science which normally would not be related."

For six months, Humeau studied with paleontologists, zoologists, veterinarians, engineers, explorers, surgeons, ear and throat specialists, and radiologists — over 100 specialists — in an effort to recreate the chords of a Mammoth Imperator, an ancestor of the better-known woolly mammoth. For the resonance cavities, for example, she had to get a CT scan of a relative: a modern-day Asian elephant. For the windpipe and lungs, she spoke to elephant vocalization specialists. In the end, Humeau was able to build a massive compilation of data that did not exist before her research, she says. "I created bridges between areas of science which normally would not be related."

The larynx was most difficult, as the bones surrounding it were unlikely to be found together, in their original spatial arrangement, on the same fossil. Humeau met with Martin Birchall, a professor of laryngology who performed the first larynx transplant ever in California a few months ago. In a fascinating twist, Birchall told her that the woman who received the transplant actually recovered her own voice, proving his theory that the larynx is just a sound generator. "What makes your voice so specific is the way you shape the air in your lungs, and the way it resonates in your mouth, and nasal cavity," says Humeau. Following Birchall's advice, Humeau didn't copy an existing larynx, rather, she created one from scratch that delivered the best sound.

In fabricating the vocal tract, the work required a tremendous amount of guesswork, and this is where she let the design process take over. In the end, she had a vocal tract that not only created the most authentic (she hoped) sound, but also had produced a piece of sculpture that indeed looks like a trumpeting mammoth. Humane used the help of a 3-D milling machine to bring her creations to life, and connected the chords to an air compressor and subwoofer-powered "voice." The Mammoth Imperator chords were featured as the project "Back, Here, Below, Formidable" at the Royal College of Art's Design Interactions show. When she first heard the sound they produced in the hall, Humeau was overwhelmed, she says. "When you are in the exhibition space, you can feel the sound, the bass in your chest." Humeau also collected her voluminous writings and documentation on her website, and produced a book.

Working alongside these ancient giants has been a humbling experience, says Humeau, which was confirmed when she met with Bernard Buigues, the French explorer who found several baby woolly mammoths and one adult, which he named Jarkov, frozen in the Siberian permafrost. Buigues told her about the experience of being so close to such well-preserved specimens — how he could see the entire creature's hair, flesh, skin, and even smell it. "It was so exciting to me because I was trying to achieve this: not only recreating the sound but also feeling the beast's physical presence again," says Humeau. "He had had this experience with the now-extinct woolly mammoth."

But she isn't purely interested in our elephant ancestors. Humeau also made a reproduction of another vocal tract that humans might be able to relate to more: that of the famous Lucy, also known as the first hominid.

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5 Comments

  • Michael Lundwall

    Wow really great article.  Thank you for sharing.  I loved the part where Humeau decided to fabricate a vocal tract that would deliver the "best sound", really interesting!

  • Patrick Stevenson-Keating

    I saw this project at the recent RCA degree show, and it was definitely the highlight of the exhibition for me.  Conceptually and physically striking, the model was fascinating and the sound produced even more compelling!  If you get a chance to see/hear this in the flesh I urge to to grab it.

  • Richard Donegan

    Interesting article. I was wondering if there is any way to locate an actual recording of what the model sounds like? I suppose it wouldn't be the same through recording, but it would still be nice to hear.