Scientists have figured out how to bring the music of ancient cave paintings to life

Archeologists who study ancient cave paintings often run across depictions of people apparently music. If that’s what was painted, what music were those people playing? And what did it sound like? It’s not like we can ask them for an MP3. This became the obsession of people studying 2,000-year-old paintings in Western Cape province in South Africa.

The first thing researchers did was determine what kind of instruments are in those paintings. It looked like the figures may be medicine men, healers wielding fly-whisks as they dance into a trance. Or maybe not.

One hypothesis said that these fly-whisks were actually musical instruments called !goin !goin in the language of ǀXam, which is now extinct. They belong to a type of instrument known as aerophones. They make sound as you spin them about.

One painting showed eight people playing the !goin !goin. Life-sized replicas were constructed using the paintings and a 19th-century model found in a museum. Once complete, the !goin !goin produced frequencies between 90 and 150 Hz that pulse. Speeding up or slowing down the rotation of the !goin !goin changes their pitch. If you have multiple players each spinning their !goin !goin at different rotational rates turn the group into a band.

The archeologists took everything into a recording studio. Three !goin !goin were used. The result was this. Anyone want to sample this?

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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