The first time I heard one was in grade school, when my friends and I would gather on the playground to hear fifth graders chant “boots and cats” at each other until one lost interest and the other was declared victorious. In college, caught in the grip of a cappella culture, I became convinced that beatboxing was a classical art form that rivaled opera. After I graduated, I never considered beatboxing again.
This week I published a paper in the journal PNAS Nexus It was found that orangutans can make two separate sounds at the same time, which the researchers say happens in human rhythm. Actually, it is press release It included a quote that made me giddy: “It is possible that early human language resembled something that sounds more like a beatbox, before evolution organized language into the consonant structure we know today,” said Adriano Lamira, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Warwick and an author on the paper. I was full of questions. Is making two sounds at once beatboxing? Before we humans learned to talk, did we beatbox?
Before we can answer any of these questions, let’s first listen to some monkeys, or the orangutan’s “beatboxing” Dulcet tunes.
Researchers recorded two different groups of wild orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra and heard the monkeys make two sounds simultaneously, a phenomenon known as biphonic call production. These calls featured consonant-like sounds that syncopated or overlapped with vowel-like noises.
The first group, large male orangutans in Borneo, produced calls that the researchers coined “growl chomping,” or making chomps and growls at the same time. Chomps are a “bubbly” sounding noise, while grumbling is like starting an engine. Over the course of more than 2,150 hours of listening, the researchers heard 30 vocalizations from two males named Zeke and Kai and 111 growls from seven males. And 16 of those 30 chomps also included groups of chomps And The grumbling, two-voice narrative that researchers have compared to beatboxing. Logical? great. Here chomp + grumble again.
Personally, I find this soundtrack incredibly soothing – it gives “sounds of the Bornean rainforest to calm down/relax to”. But I’m not an orangutan, so it shows what I know: Male orangutans growl in response to disturbances or prelude to a fight.
The other group the researchers interviewed were adult female orangutans from Sumatran. These primates produced a mixture of “kiss squeaks” and “persistent calls” to warn other orangutans of incoming predators. Over the course of 1,287 hours of listening, the researchers recorded 1,176 kiss squeaks from five females named Chris, Elisa, Boogie, and Sina, however, and 1,158 circulating calls from seven females. All together, Chris, Elisa, Boogie, and Senna nonetheless produced 293 instances of the squeaky-rolling-call combinations.
I think this set of calls is just so named, as a kiss squeak sounds exactly like a kiss and squeak rolled into one. And the rolling calls sounded more like what one would imagine an orangutan, a type of grunty, would make.
But wait. Do any of these beatboxing? the The Speech Production and Expression Knowledge Group at the University of Southern California He defines beatboxing as “a musical art form that uses the vocal tract to mimic percussion and other sound effects.” Assuming these orangutans are not regularly subjected to diseased tympanic solos, their calls do not mimic percussion. Instead, the researchers suggest that these calls are similar to human beatboxing because they involve making simultaneous audible and inaudible sounds. They even suggest that the orangutan’s two-voiced calls sound “on par with human cadence,” as vocal complexity and “exuberance” seem to indicate fitness, vigor, and/or status, according to the paper. Does that explain the highly specific, inexplicable lure? To this day, for the a cappella boys at my college who sang Beyoncé’s ill-advised mash-up in matching hats?and just this week, scientists published potential evidence that our ancestors were human. They slaughtered and ate each other; I am no willing to accept the idea that early hominins may also have been beatboxers.
If an orangutan ever made or listened to an instrument that sounded like chomps + grumbles or kisses + squeaks, I suppose this would really be beatboxing. But for now it seems best for all concerned to appreciate the orangutan’s two-voiced calls as an outstanding vocal achievement. Primates may have sicker vocal ranges that researchers haven’t heard yet. I am absolutely going to stream an All-orangutan EP Chomps + grumble [Chopped and Screwed].
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