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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.

Examples:

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

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    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, 2015 at 6:21
  • @sashkello the ear is more sensitive than the hand. When I put my ear against the masonry walls of my fourth-floor apartment, I can hear the trams on the main street a couple of hundred meters away. When I put my hand on the same spot, I feel nothing.
    – phoog
    Jan 5 at 10:14

1 Answer 1

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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.

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    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, 2016 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, 2016 at 16:27
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    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, 2018 at 7:19
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    @GeorgeWhite the human ear is far more sensitive to a wider range of frequencies than is the human hand. For example, I cannot feel my neighbors talking when I put my hand on the wall, but I can hear them when I put my ear on the wall.
    – phoog
    Jan 5 at 10:05
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    I should have said Ear to train tracks Jan 5 at 17:14

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