Prehistoric music

Prehistoric music
Musical eras
Ancient (before AD 500)
Early (500 – 1760)
Common practice (1600 – 1900)
Modern and contemporary (1900 – present)

Prehistoric music (previously called 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.

Prehistoric music thus technically includes all of the world's music that has existed before the advent of any currently-extant historical sources concerning that music, for example, traditional Native American music of preliterate tribes and Australian Aboriginal music. 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.



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.[1][2] It may also serve entertainment (game)[3][4] or practical (luring animals in hunt)[3] 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, jewellery 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 effects of this kind can explain music's ultimate origin.

Another possible origin of music is motherese, the vocal-gestural communication between adults (usually mothers) and infants.[5] 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[citation needed] 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".[6] 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, that in most species where singing is used for the purposes of sexual selection (through the female choice), only males sing (as it is male, who is mostly 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.

It has been recently suggested that the primary function of music was a defense (through the intimidating audio-visual display), used by early hominids against the major predators of Africa after they descended to the ground.[7] Joseph Jordania suggested that singing in hominids was communal and had two evolutionary functions: internal and external. The internal function of loud rhythmic group singing (and drumming) was to alter the hominid brain through strong emotions and to make group members lose themselves in order to get them into a state of battle trance, where they forgot their instinctive fear for the big predators and death and did not feel pain during combat. In this state group members were acquiring a new, shared collective identity, and were acting as one united body, in the best interests of the group. Rhythmic repetitive music is one of the best-known methods to get humans into the trance, or altered state of consciousness (for example, during shamanistic rituals). The external function of the loud rhythmic group singing (together with vigorous body movements, drumming, stone hitting and stone throwing) was to intimidate large African predators (or competitors). As the continuation of the initial defense/military function of music, humans had been using battle cry and military songs from the prehistoric times in order to raise their confidence and to intimidate the opponents. Long hours of military drills is a well-known means for developing the sense of unity and obedience in new recruits.[8] Loud rhythmic music is still widely used to assist soldiers in preparing them for combat situations.[9] Apart from defense from the predators, the system of audio-visual intimidation could also be used by early hominids to obtain food, as they could chase away predators in order to scavenge their kill. This approach is consistent with the involvement of the most ancient brain circuits of the human brain (which are only used in critical survival situations), in production and perception of musical sounds. Apart from loud intimidating singing, Jordania suggested that early hominids also used soft relaxing humming to maintain contact within the group and to alert each other about the possible danger.[10]

Prehistoric musical instruments

It is possible 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 & speech.) The oldest known Neanderthal hyoid bone with the modern human form has been dated to be 60,000 years old,[11] predating the oldest known bone flute by 25,000 years; but since both artifacts are unique 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 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[citation needed] 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 Oldowan era of the Paleolithic age, the anthropological and archeological designation suggests that music first arose (amongst 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.


The oldest flute ever discovered may be the so-called Divje Babe flute, found in the Slovenian cave Divje Babe I in 1995, though this is disputed.[12] 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.[13][14] However, whether it is truly a musical instrument or simply a carnivore-chewed bone is a matter of ongoing debate.[12]

In 2008, archaeologists discovered a bone flute in the Hohle Fels cave near Ulm, Germany.[15] [16] 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 the oldest confirmed find of any musical instruments in history.[17] The Hohle Fels flute was found next to the Venus of Hohle Fels and a short distance from the oldest known human carving.[18] 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".[19] Scientists have also suggested that the discovery of the flute may help to explain why early humans survived, while Neanderthals became extinct.[17]

The oldest known wooden pipes were discovered near Greystones, Ireland, in 2004. 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.[20][dead link]

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)

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. ^ Hoppál 2006: 143
  2. ^ Diószegi 1960: 203
  3. ^ a b Nattiez: 5
  4. ^ Deschênes 2002
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ 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
  7. ^ Joseph Jordania (2006). Who Asked the First Question? The Origins of Human Choral Singing, Intelligence, Language and Speech. Tbilisi: Logos. ISBN 99940-31-81-3. 
  8. ^ MCneill, William H. (1995). Keeping together in time: Dance and drill in Human History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 
  9. ^ Jonathan Pieslak (2009). Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 
  10. ^ Jordania, J. (2009). Times to Fight and Times to Relax: Singing and Humming at the Beginnings of Human Evolutionary History. Kadmos, 1, 272–277
  11. ^ 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. 
  12. ^ a b 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. 
  13. ^ Tenenbaum, David (June 2000). "Neanderthal jam". The Why Files. University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents. Retrieved 14 March 2006. 
  14. ^ Flute History, UCLA. Retrieved June 2007.
  15. ^ 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. 
  16. ^
  17. ^ a b "'Oldest musical instrument' found". BBC news. 2009-06-25. Retrieved 2009-06-26. 
  18. ^ "Music for cavemen". MSMBC. 2009-06-24. Retrieved 2009-06-26. 
  19. ^ "Flutes Offer Clues to Stone-Age Music". The New York Times. 2009-06-24. Retrieved 2009-06-26. 
  20. ^


Further reading

  • Ellen Hickmann, Anne D. Kilmer and Ricardo Eichmann, (ed.) Studies in Music Archaeology III, 2001, VML Verlag Marie Leidorf GmbH., Germany ISBN 3-89646-640-2
  • Wallin, Nils, Bjorn Merker, and Steven Brown, eds., The Origins of Music, (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA., 2000). ISBN 0-262-23206-5. Compilation of essays.
  • Engel, Carl, The Music of the Most Ancient Nations, Wm. Reeves, 1929.
  • Haik Vantoura,Suzanne(1976). The Music of the Bible Revealed ISBN 978-2249271021
  • Nettl, Bruno (1956). Music in Primitive Culture. Harvard University Press.
  • Sachs, Curt, The Rise of Music in the Ancient World, East and West, W.W. Norton, 1943.
  • Sachs, Curt, The Wellsprings of Music, McGraw-Hill, 1965.
  • Smith, Hermann, The World's Earliest Music, Wm. Reeves, 1904.

External links

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Music in ancient India — Music in ancient India, encompassing the modern day Indian subcontinent of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, can be reproduced from written works dating to the Indian classical period, such as the Nātya Shastra, and through surviving examples of… …   Wikipedia

  • Music archaeology — is an interdisciplinary field that mixes musicology and Archaeology. As it includes music from numerous cultures, it is often seen as being a part of ethnomusicology, and indeed a study group looking into music archaeology first emerged from… …   Wikipedia

  • Music — For other uses, see Music (disambiguation). Music …   Wikipedia

  • Prehistoric art — Ceramic stirrup spout vessel representing a crustacean. Moche Culture, Peru, 100 BCE to 700 CE …   Wikipedia

  • Music of ancient Greece — Apollo with the tortoise shell lyre, on a 5th century BC drinking cup (kylix) The music of ancient Greece was almost universally present in society, from marriages and funerals to religious ceremonies, theatre, folk music and the ballad like… …   Wikipedia

  • Music of ancient Rome — Less is known about Ancient Roman music than is known about the music of ancient Greece. There is a number of at least partially extant sources on the music of the Greeks. For example, much is known about the theories of Pythagoras and… …   Wikipedia

  • Music of Mesopotamia — This article treats the music of Ancient Mesopotamia. Cuneiform sources reveal an orderly organized system of diatonic depending on the tuning of stringed instruments in alternating fifths and fourths.[vague] Whether this reflects all types of… …   Wikipedia

  • Prehistoric France — is the period in the human occupation (including early hominins) of the geographical area covered by present day France which extended through prehistory and ended in the Iron Age with the Celtic La Tène culture .The PalaeolithicLower… …   Wikipedia

  • Music theory — is the study of how music works. It examines the language and notation of music. It seeks to identify patterns and structures in composers techniques across or within genres, styles, or historical periods. In a grand sense, music theory distills… …   Wikipedia

  • Music therapy — Intervention ICD 9 CM 93.84 MeSH …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.