There is a trope (in movies and cartoons and elsewhere) of Native American (or other) trackers are sometimes depicted as listening to the ground to presumably hear far away horses or other animals moving.


Does this have any basis in reality? Can you hear better by putting an ear to the ground?

  • 7
    From the physics point of view, yes, sound goes through solids way better than through air. I'm not sure that putting your ear to the ground is better than simply feeling vibrations with your hand though. This story sounds very reasonable, however I think to answer this question one needs some first-hand historical accounts, because it is about if they actually did it, rather than if it would make sense...
    – sashkello
    Aug 24 '15 at 6:21
  • 3
    I know you can hear a train coming by listening to the rails far before you can hear it otherwise - so it certainly seems plausible
    – warren
    Aug 28 '15 at 20:04
  • 1
    @warren the downside of this approach, however, becomes obvious if you, for some reason, do not manage to remove your head from the trajectory of the train you hear. Sep 8 '15 at 18:39
  • @JanDvorak - this is true ... but that seems an improbable thing to do, unless you're trying to commit suicide-by-train
    – warren
    Sep 8 '15 at 19:32

According to the 1832 book Six Months in America, volume II, at page 67:

At certain seasons of the year, their tramping and bellowing may be heard at a vast distance on the plains, by putting the ear to the ground; and in this way, if heard in the morning, incredible as it may appear, it will sometimes be evening before the hunters can come up with them.

in reference to bison hunting by native Americans.

And according to Technology for Diagnostic Sonography at page 11:

Watching late-night western movies teaches that one does not listen for the sound of an oncoming train or a herd of buffalo in a normal standing position. Every youngster learned from old westerns that you put your ear to the rail or to the ground. The late John Wayne most likely would not have said, “Put your ear to the ground because that way you will eliminate the acoustic impedance mismatch and thus get a better sound transfer,” but he should have, for that is the case.

  • 6
    I gave this a +1 because I think it is a good reference to show the claim wasn't invented by Hollywood in the 1920s. However, the description itself reminded me of water dowsing, and made me wonder whether the technique actually works, or is just believed to work by the practitioners.
    – Oddthinking
    Jan 1 '16 at 0:50
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    @Oddthinking I'll try to add something more scientific to the answer confirming or refuting whether it actually works. This reference might be a start but I have to study it awhile www2.hmc.edu/~dym/1-JSV1976GroundVib.pdf.
    – DavePhD
    Jan 1 '16 at 16:27
  • I have to agree, the 1832 source isn't giving us much... And while the theoretical physical arguments are solid and easy to understand - which is exactly what makes this whole thing plausible in the first place - we're still laking some actual evidence that the practice is of any actual real world use.
    – fgysin
    Dec 20 '18 at 7:19

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