Prior to the Internet, radio, and telegraph, the fastest human communication on Earth belonged to African drums. They were amazing, really; while northern Europeans would send messages via slow horses, which can go 50 miles per hour in short bursts but only 17 mph galloping long distances, villages across Africa could speak to each other via drum signals at the speed of sound, using drums with only two tones. Messages passed from village to village could travel faster than 100 miles per hour (given the time to hear and resend the drum signals). If invaders struck or fire spread, villages thousands of miles apart could know within half a day.
The question, of course, is how was this possible? The drums carried only two sounds (an upper and lower pitch, created by playing two separate drums). Unlike Morse Code, there was no consistent African alphabet to be transcribed into dots and dashes. How could information about war, or whether to meet by the river, be encrypted in such simple drum signals?
It worked because African languages had a secret that took decades for European intruders to discover: they were based on both sounds (like English) and pitch (high or low notes). In English, we use pitch infrequently, at its most basic to distinguish a statement from a question (You are mad, downbeat. You are mad?, upbeat.) By contrast, in many African tongues, as James Gleick profiles in The Information, minor nuances in tone change the definition of each word. Alambaka boili expressed one way means “he watched the riverbank”; alambaka boili with a different series of pitches means “he boiled his mother-in-law.”
But drumming information remained a challenge — because African language required both sound and pitch, and drum beats removed the human sounds. Drummers relying solely on tones had to create an entirely new language; because tones by themselves could signal several different words, the drummers solved this problem by adding several other words of context to each phrase of beats. Say you needed to drum the word “bird.” To remove ambiguity, drummers signaling the message would beat “the foul, the little one that says kiokio.” Every term used others to clarify itself. Gleick writes, “The extra drumbeats, far from being extraneous, provide context. Every ambiguous word begins in a cloud of possible alternative interpretations; then the unwanted possibilities evaporate.”
It was an ingenious solution to a complex communication problem. Sadly, the drum language is being replaced by the Internet and text messaging.
Originally posted on Google+. Image: Martin Sharman.