It’s just a few minutes, geologically speaking. But it was forty centuries ago in our human past that people in some rocky canyons in Texas made some of the most remarkable rock art in North America. At twenty years a reproductive cycle, that’s only two hundred generations, which isn’t a lot. Two hundred fruitfly generations, by contrast, is a little less than eight years.
The Lower Pecos art features countless depictions of humans and animals, along with religious symbols and designs — done in varied styles with distinctive materials. By using portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF), archeologists working at the site have discovered that different styles of art use pigments made with different ingredients — yielding new insights about the artists who created these still-evocative images:
Using a handheld pXRF device, which looks something like a state trooper’s radar gun, the archaeologists were able to scan rock paintings on site and get immediate readings on the chemical makeup of the pigments used to make them.
In Seminole Canyon’s Black Cave, for instance, the scientists analyzed giant tableaux painted in what’s thought to be the region’s earliest style, known simply as the Pecos River Style — featuring colorful, towering human-like figures sporting headdresses, holding staffs, and flanked by animals or shamanic symbols.
But the same cave also bears pictures made in a simpler, smaller-scale style known as Red Linear — portraying stick-like figures of people and animals in more quotidian scenes, like hunting parties or fertility rites.
These people sang and danced, probably in ways that still echo in the music of present-day Native Americans. We’ll never know for sure; there is nothing like a pXRF scanner for long-vanished sounds. Human history is full of musics that have vanished without a trace, leaving only faint stylistic echoes on the songs and singing that succeed them.
Some researchers have attempted a musicological version of comparative linguistics in an effort to demarcate the contours of our species’ earliest music.
In linguistics, the comparative method is a technique for studying the development of languages by performing a feature-by-feature comparison of two or more languages with common descent from a shared ancestor, as opposed to the method of internal reconstruction, which analyses the internal development of a single language over time. Ordinarily both methods are used together to reconstruct prehistoric phases of languages, to fill in gaps in the historical record of a language, to discover the development of phonological, morphological, and other linguistic systems, and to confirm or refute hypothesized relationships between languages.
Victor Grauer postulates that musical style contours don’t change as fast as languages do, making it possible to go quite far back in our species’ history:
So, what WAS music like in the year 000001, you ask? Astonishingly, there is more than enough evidence for us to speculate meaningfully on the nature of humankind’s first musical style. Linguists would love to reconstruct the very first — or “Ur” — language, based on what is known about the nature of all the various language families in existence today. There’s not much hope that any such effort could be successful, as there are very few (or perhaps too many) clues to work with and the whole process of reconstruction would have to be based on a long series of untestable assumptions and speculations. However, music would seem to operate in a very different manner than verbal language and as a result there may be no need to reconstruct humankind’s earliest music, because it is still being performed today — we can simply listen to it. But how can that be? If languages have changed so much over time, wouldn’t musical styles also have changed? One would think so, certainly. But the evidence would seem to tell a different story.
The work of learning about our species’ pre-history culture has the side-effect of locating us (industrial modern humanity) smack-dab in the middle, between an increasingly defined past and an increasingly uncertain future. When the remotest past was only a thousand years away, it was impossible to imagine any future more distant. Now we can see the artwork of people many thousands of years in the past, we can analyze our DNA to reveal clues about our ancestors millions of years ago — and our future stretches out beyond the scope of our imagination.
People four thousand years from now will be able to hear our music, unless we lose on climate.
Will we live to fill that future with song?
Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell perform “Terrestrial Beings.”