If you listen closely, the drumbeats of Amazonian tribes sound like human speech

Source: Science Magazine

Four years after Frank Seifart started documenting endangered dialects in Colombia, the guerillas came. In 2004, soldiers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia swept past the Amazonian village where he did most of his fieldwork. The linguist reluctantly left for another village, south of the Peruvian border.

When he got there, the chief was away. In the central roundhouse, an old man beat out a rhythm on two enormous drums: “A stranger has arrived. Come home.” And the chief did. It was the first time Seifart, now at the University of Cologne and the French National Center for Scientific Research in Lyon, had heard the traditional drums not just making music, but sending a message.

Now, he and his colleagues have published the first in-depth study of how the drummers do it: Tiny variations in the time between beats match how words in the spoken language are vocalized. The finding, reported today in Royal Society Open Science, reveals how the group known as the Bora can create complex drummed messages. It may also help explain how the rest of us “get” what others are saying at loud cocktail parties, by detecting those tiny variations in time even when other sounds are drowned out.



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