Prehistoric music

A bone flute which is over 41,000 years old.
Music eras
Ancient before 500 AD
Early c. 5001760
Common practice c. 16001900
c. 1900present

Prehistoric music (previously primitive music) is a term in the history of music for all music produced in preliterate cultures (prehistory), beginning somewhere in very late geological history. Prehistoric music is followed by ancient music in different parts of the world, but still exists in isolated areas. However, it is more common to refer to the "prehistoric" music which still survives as folk, indigenous or traditional music. Prehistoric music is studied alongside other periods within music archaeology.

Findings from paleolithic archaeology sites suggest that prehistoric people used carving and piercing tools to create instruments. Archeologists have found Paleolithic flutes carved from bones in which lateral holes have been pierced. The Divje Babe flute, carved from a cave bear femur, is thought to be at least 40,000 years old. Instruments such as the seven-holed flute and various types of stringed instruments, such as the Ravanahatha, have been recovered from the Indus Valley Civilization archaeological sites.[1] India has one of the oldest musical traditions in the world—references to Indian classical music (marga) are found in the Vedas, ancient scriptures of the Hindu tradition.[2] The earliest and largest collection of prehistoric musical instruments was found in China and dates back to between 7000 and 6600 BCE.[3]


Research on the evolutionary origins of music mostly started in the second half of the 19th century, and was much discussed within Music Archaeology in the 20th Century. After the appearance of the collection of articles "The Origins of Music" (Wallin, Merker, Brown, 2000) the subject was a debated topic of human evolutionary history. There are currently many hypotheses (not necessarily conflicting) about the origins of music.

Some suggest that the origin of music likely stems from naturally occurring sounds and rhythms. Human music may echo these phenomena using patterns, repetition and tonality. Even today, some cultures have certain instances of their music intending to imitate natural sounds. In some instances, this feature is related to shamanistic beliefs or practice.[4][5] It may also serve entertainment (game)[6][7] or practical (luring animals in hunt)[6] functions.

Even aside from the bird song, monkeys have been witnessed to beat on hollow logs. Although this might serve some purpose of territorialism, it suggests a degree of creativity and seems to incorporate a call and response dialogue. See: zoomusicology.

Explanations of the origin of music depend on how music is defined. If we assume that music is a form of intentional emotional manipulation, music as we know it was not possible until the onset of intentionality - the ability to reflect about the past and the future. Between 60,000 and 30,000 years ago humans started creating art in the form of paintings on cave walls, jewelry and so on (the "cultural explosion"). They also started to bury their dead ceremonially. If we assume that these new forms of behavior reflect the emergence of intentionality, then music as we know it must also have emerged during that period.

From a psychological viewpoint, the question of the origin of music is difficult to answer. Music evokes strong emotions and changed states of awareness. Generally, strong emotions are associated with evolution (sex and survival). But there is no clear link between music and sex, or between music and survival. Regarding sex, musicians often may use music to attract mates (as for example male birds may use their plumage to attract females), but that is just one of many functions of music and one of many ways to attract mates. Regarding survival, societies with a musical culture may be better able to survive because the music coordinates their emotions, helps important messages to be communicated within the group (in ritual), motivates them to identify with the group, and motivates them to support other group members. However it is difficult to demonstrate that effects of this kind can enhance the survival of one group in competition with other groups. Once music exists, effects of this kind may promote its development but it is unclear whether they can explain music’s ultimate origin.

Another possible origin of music is motherese, the vocal-gestural communication between adults (usually mothers) and infants.[8] This form of communication involves melodic, rhythmic and movement patterns as well as the communication of intention and meaning, and in this sense is similar to music. Motherese has two main functions: to strengthen bonding between mother and infant, and to help the infant to acquire language. Both of these functions enhance the infant’s chances of survival and may therefore be subject to natural selection.

Motherese has a gestural vocabulary that is similar across cultures. The way mothers and babies raise and lower their voices and simultaneously change their expressions and move their hands is similar in Asia and Europe, for example (in spite of linguistic differences such as tone languages versus non-tone languages). The apparent universality of motherese could be explained either genetically or by universals of the human environment. A genetic explanation for the vocabulary of motherese would have to be biological and evolutionary; no such explanation has yet been found. Regarding environment, motherese may stem from universals of the prenatal environment. The human fetus can hear for 20 weeks before birth – considerably longer than other animals, most of which cannot hear before birth at all. The fetus can also perceive movement and orientation for 20 weeks before birth. This is presumably not an accident of evolution, but an adaptation that promotes the survival of the infant after birth by improving bonding between the infant and the mother. If the fetus learns to perceive the emotional state of the mother via the internal sounds of her body (voice, heartbeat, footsteps, digestion etc.), it can presumably adjust its postnatal demands (e.g. crying) depending on her availability and in that way enhance its own survival as a fragile being in a dangerous world. Research on the ability of the fetus to learn and remember sound patterns, and on the active two-way nature of mother-infant communication, is consistent with this theory. If this theory is true, the internal sounds of the human body and the relationship between those patterns and emotional state may be the ultimate source of the relationship between patterns of sound and movement in music and their strong emotional connotations. This theory is consistent with the universal link between music and religion and the changed states of consciousness that music can co-evoke.

Charles Darwin’s idea about the importance of music for human sexual selection found a new development in Miller’s idea of the role of musical display for "demonstrating fitness to mate".[9] Based on the ideas of honest signal and the handicap principle, Miller suggested that music and dancing, as energetically costly activities, were to demonstrate the physical and psychological fitness of the singing and dancing individual to the prospective mates. Critics of this approach note how in most species where singing is used for the purposes of sexual selection through female choice, only males sing (as it is males, who are trying to impress females with different audio and visual displays), and besides, males as a rule sing alone.

Among humans both males and females are ardent singers, and making music is mostly a communal activity. Communal singing by both sexes occurs among many cooperatively breeding songbirds of Australia and Africa such as the butcherbirds,[10] fairywrens, white-browed sparrow weaver[11] and Turdoides species, but is absent from non-hominid mammals.

Prehistoric musical instruments

It is likely that the first musical instrument was the human voice itself, which can make a vast array of sounds, from singing, humming and whistling through to clicking, coughing and yawning. (See Darwin’s Origin of Species on music and speech.) The oldest known Neanderthal hyoid bone with the modern human form has been dated to be 60,000 years old,[12] predating the oldest known Paleolithic bone flute by some 20,000 years,[13] but the true chronology may date back much further.

Most likely the first rhythm instruments or percussion instruments involved the clapping of hands, stones hit together, or other things that are useful to create rhythm and indeed there are examples of musical instruments which date back as far as the paleolithic, although there is some ambiguity [14] over archaeological finds which can be variously interpreted as either musical or non-musical instruments/tools. Examples of paleolithic objects which are considered unambiguously musical are bone flutes or pipes; paleolithic finds which are open to interpretation are pierced phalanges (usually interpreted as "phalangeal whistles"), objects interpreted as Bullroarers, and rasps.

Music can be theoretically traced to prior to the Paleolithic age, the anthropological and archaeological designation suggests that music first arose (among humans) when stone tools first began to be used by hominids. The noises produced by work such as pounding seed and roots into meal is a likely source of rhythm created by early humans.


Main article: Paleolithic flutes
Aurignacian flute made from a vulture bone, Geissenklösterle (Swabia), which is about 35,000 years old.

The oldest flute ever discovered may be the so-called Nicholas flute, found in the Germanyn cave Hohle Fels in 2008, though this is disputed.[15] The item in question is a fragment of the femur of a juvenile cave bear, and has been dated to about 43,000 years ago.[16][17] However, whether it is truly a musical instrument or simply a carnivore-chewed bone is a matter of ongoing debate.[15] In 2012 some flutes, that were discovered years earlier in the Geißenklösterle cave, received a new high resolution carbon dating examination yielding an age of 42,000 to 43,000 years.[18]

In 2008, archaeologists discovered a bone flute in the Hohle Fels cave near Ulm, Germany.[19][20] The five-holed flute has a V-shaped mouthpiece and is made from a vulture wing bone. The researchers involved in the discovery officially published their findings in the journal Nature in June 2009. It is one of several similar instruments found in the area, which date to at least 35,000 years ago, making this one of the oldest confirmed find of any musical instruments in history.[21] The Hohle Fels flute was found next to the Venus of Hohle Fels and a short distance from the oldest known human carving.[22] On announcing the discovery, scientists suggested that the "finds demonstrate the presence of a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans colonized Europe".[23] Scientists have also suggested that the discovery of the flute may help to explain why early humans survived, while Neanderthals became extinct.[21]

The oldest known wooden pipes were discovered in Wicklow, Ireland, in the winter of 2003. A wood-lined pit contained a group of six flutes made from yew wood, between 30 and 50 cm long, tapered at one end, but without any finger holes. They may once have been strapped together.[24]

In 1986, several gudi (literally "bone flutes") were found in Jiahu in Henan Province, China. They date to about 6000 BCE. They have between 5 and 8 holes each and were made from the hollow bones of a bird, the red-crowned crane. At the time of the discovery, one was found to be still playable. The bone flute plays both the five- or seven-note scale of Xia Zhi and six-note scale of Qing Shang of the ancient Chinese musical system.

Archaeoacoustic methodology

The use of the term 'music' is problematic within prehistory. It may be that, as in the traditional music of much of sub-Saharan Africa, the concept of 'music' as we understand it was somewhat different. Many languages traditionally have terms for music that include dance, religion or cult. The context in which prehistoric music took place has also become a subject of much study, as the sound made by music in prehistory would have been somewhat different depending on the acoustics present. The field of archaeoacoustics uses acoustic techniques to explore prehistoric sounds, soundscapes and instruments, and has included the study of ringing rocks and lithophones, of the acoustics of ritual sites such as chamber tombs and stone circles, and the exploration of prehistoric instruments using acoustic testing. Such work has included acoustic field tests to capture and analyse the impulse response of archaeological sites; acoustic tests of lithophones or 'rock gongs'; and reconstructions of soundscapes as experimental archaeology.

An academic research network, the Acoustics and Music of British Prehistory Research Network, has explored this field.

Cycladic culture

Cycladic statues of a double flute player (foreground) and a harpist (background)
Further information: Music of ancient Greece and Cycladic culture

On the island of Keros (Κέρος), two marble statues from the late Neolithic culture called Early Cycladic culture (2900-2000 BCE) were discovered together in a single grave in the 19th century. They depict a standing double flute player and a sitting musician playing a triangular-shaped lyre or harp. The harpist is approximately 23 cm (9 in) high and dates to around 2700-2500 BCE. He expresses concentration and intense feelings and tilts his head up to the light. The meaning of these and many other figures is not known; perhaps they were used to ward off evil spirits or had religious significance or served as toys or depicted figures from mythology.

See also


  1. The Music of India By Reginald MASSEY, Jamila MASSEY. Google Books
  2. Brown, RE (1971). "India's Music". Readings in Ethnomusicology.
  3. Wilkinson, Endymion (2000). Chinese history. Harvard University Asia Center.
  4. Hoppál 2006: 143
  5. Diószegi 1960: 203
  6. 1 2 Nattiez: 5
  7. Deschênes 2002
  8. Dissanayake, E. (2000). Antecedents of the temporal arts in early mother-infant interaction. In The origins of music. Edited by Nils Wallin, Bjorn Merker and Steven Brown, pp. 389-410. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pg 389-410
  9. Miller, G. (2000). Evolution of human music through sexual selection. In The origins of music. Edited by Nils Wallin, Bjorn Merker and Steven Brown, pp. 329-360. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pg. 389-410
  10. Brown, Eleanor D. and Farabaugh, Susan M.; “Song Sharing in a Group-Living Songbird, the Australian Magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen. Part III. Sex Specificity and Individual Specificity of Vocal Parts in Communal Chorus and Duet Songs” in Behaviour, Vol. 118, No. 3/4 (September 1991), pp. 244-274
  11. Voigt, Cornelia; Leitner, Stefan and Gahr, Manfred; “Repertoire and structure of duet and solo songs in cooperatively breeding white-browed sparrow weavers” in Behaviour; Vol. 143, No. 2 (February 2006), pp. 159-182
  12. B. Arensburg, A. M. Tillier, B. Vandermeersch, H. Duday, L. A. Schepartz & Y. Rak (April 1989). "A Middle Palaeolithic human hyoid bone". Nature. 338 (6218): 758–760. doi:10.1038/338758a0. PMID 2716823.
  15. 1 2 d'Errico, Francesco, Paola Villa, Ana C. Pinto Llona, and Rosa Ruiz Idarraga (1998). "A Middle Palaeolithic origin of coool? Using cave-bear bone accumulations to assess the Divje Babe I bone 'flute'" (Abstract). Antiquity. 72 (March): 65–79.
  16. Tenenbaum, David (June 2000). "Neanderthal jam". The Why Files. University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents. Retrieved 14 March 2006.
  17. Flute History, UCLA. Retrieved June 2007.
  18. Earliest music instruments found
  19. Wilford, John N. (June 24, 2009). "Flutes Offer Clues to Stone-Age Music". Nature. The New York Times. 459 (7244): 248–52. doi:10.1038/nature07995. PMID 19444215. Retrieved June 29, 2009.
  21. 1 2 "'Oldest musical instrument' found". BBC news. 2009-06-25. Retrieved 2009-06-26.
  22. "Music for cavemen". MSNBC. 2009-06-24. Retrieved 2009-06-26.
  23. "Flutes Offer Clues to Stone-Age Music". The New York Times. 2009-06-24. Retrieved 2009-06-26.
  24. Clint Goss (2012). "The Wicklow Pipes / The Development of Flutes in Europe and Asia". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2012-01-09.


Further reading

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