Prehistoric Music

divje babe flute

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. There are currently many hypotheses (not necessarily conflicting) about the origins of music. Some suggest that the origin 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. It may also serve entertainment (game) or practical (luring animals in hunt) 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 (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.

Another possible origin of music is motherese, the vocal-gestural communication between adults (usually mothers) and infants. 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.’ 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. 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. Loud rhythmic music is still widely used to assist soldiers in preparing them for combat situations. 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.

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. The oldest known Neanderthal hyoid bone with the modern human form has been dated to be 60,000 years old, 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 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. 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. However, whether it is truly a musical instrument or simply a carnivore-chewed bone is a matter of ongoing debate. In 2008, archaeologists discovered a bone flute in the Hohle Fels cave near Ulm, Germany. The five-holed flute has a V-shaped mouthpiece and is made from a vulture wing bone. 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.

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.

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