The History of the Rain Stick

Rain sticks manufactured today are often made of dried cactus.
... Dario Lo Presti/iStock/Getty Images

A rain stick is a rattle made of hollowed plant stalks which, when turned or shaken, produces a pattering sound similar to rain. The sound produced by the instrument has contributed to the common notion that the rain stick has historically been used in rituals to summon rain by indigenous peoples of arid climates. Despite this popular belief, the origin and history of the rain stick remain unclear.

1 Construction and Play

The materials used to construct rain sticks vary depending on what resources are locally available. While inhabitants of the Amazonian rain forest may construct a rain stick from bamboo, people of desert regions in South and Central America often use local species of cacti. Across the globe, rain sticks are primarily made from plant stalks that are dried, hollowed, and filled with pebbles or seeds. Pins or thorns are pushed through the stalk so that when the instrument is tipped the falling objects on the inside of the stalk cause a rain-like sound

2 Chilean Rain Sticks

Many of the rain sticks sold today come from the Diaguita peoples of northern Chile and Argentina. The Diaguita in Chile occupy the Atcama desert, one of the most arid regions in the world. Rain sticks from this region are made by inverting the pins of the capado cactus back into the dried stalk. The popularity of these rain sticks coupled with the dry climate of the Diaguita Indians' home has led to speculation that rain sticks originated in this area as a ritual tool to bring rain to the deserts. However, the instrument is not present in early inventories of Diaguitan material culture.

3 Similar Instruments Across the Globe

Some authorities suggest that the rain stick evolved from the tubular rattle, a percussive instrument with a tubular body. Instruments like these have been cited as being used by natives of Panama, Ecuador, the Amazon, and Northern Mexico. Rattles have also been found in archaeological digs along the coast of Peru, but it is unclear if these artifacts are from the time of the Inca Empire (from 6,000 B.C. to 1,500 A.D.) or earlier.

4 Unclear Origins

One theory of the rain stick’s origin suggests that disparate peoples across the globe developed the instrument at relatively the same time. However, most authoritative beliefs on the subject remain conflicting. For instance, a rain stick-like bamboo instrument has been discovered in China. Some historians still hold that the technology was developed as early as 1537 by slaves captured in West Africa who then carried the instruments to their new homes in Central and South America. Another theory claims that the rain stick remained in obscurity until it was introduced into popular Mexican music in the 1960s.

5 The Rain Stick Today

Though its history is uncertain, the rain stick has certainly become a popular item in trade and music today, so much so that at least one scientific paper has been written on the threat the burgeoning rain stick industry in Chile poses to the Echinopsis chiloensis, a species of cactus sometimes used in artisanal rain stick production. The instrument has also become widely used as an educational tool in the United States, with many schools and museums encouraging young children to explore Native American history and build motor skills by constructing a rain stick of their own.

Lindsey Scott has been writing on sociocultural issues since 2010, with a special interest in technological change, communications and ethics. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in anthropology and sociology from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore.