Prehistoric music

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The Divje Babe Flute, a bone flute which is over 41,000 years old. Flute paleolithique (musee national de Slovenie, Ljubljana) (9420310527).jpg
The Divje Babe Flute, a bone flute which is over 41,000 years old.

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]

Origins of prehistoric instruments

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. 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 functions (for example, luring animals in hunt). [6]

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, [8] predating the oldest known Paleolithic bone flute by some 20,000 years,[ citation needed ] but the true chronology may date back much further.

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 are a likely source of rhythm created by early humans. The first rhythm instruments or percussion instruments most likely involved the clapping of hands, stones hit together, or other things that are useful to create rhythm. Examples of paleolithic objects which are considered unambiguously musical are bone flutes or pipes; paleolithic finds which are currently open to interpretation include pierced phalanges (usually interpreted as "phalangeal whistles"), bullroarers, and rasps. These musical instruments date back as far as the paleolithic, although there is some ambiguity [9] over archaeological finds which can be variously interpreted as either musical or non-musical instruments/tools.

Another possible origin of music is motherese, the vocal-gestural communication between 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. [10]

Miller suggests musical displays play a role in "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. [11] Communal singing by both sexes occurs among cooperatively breeding songbirds of Australia and Africa such as magpies, [12] and white-browed sparrow-weaver. [13]

Archaeoacoustic methodology

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.



In prehistoric Egypt, music and chanting were commonly used in magic and rituals. The ancient Egyptians credited the goddess Bat with the invention of music. The cult of Bat was eventually syncretised into that of Hathor because both were depicted as cows. Hathor's music was believed to have been used by Osiris as part of his effort to civilise the world. The lion-goddess Bastet was also considered a goddess of music. Rhythms during this time were unvaried and music served to create rhythm. Small shells were used as whistles. [14] (pp26–30). During the predynastic period of Egyptian history, funerary chants continued to play an important role in Egyptian religion and were accompanied by clappers or a flute. Despite the lack of physical evidence in some cases, Egyptologists theorise that the development of certain instruments known of the Old Kingdom period, such as the end-blown flute, took place during this time. [14] (pp33–34)



In 1986, several gudi (literally "bone flutes") were found in Jiahu in Henan Province, China. They date to about 7000 BCE. They have between 6 and 9 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.[ citation needed ]


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] 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. [15]


Performance of Aboriginal song and dance in the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney. Aboriginal song and dance.jpg
Performance of Aboriginal song and dance in the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.

Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander music includes the music of Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders. Music has formed an integral part of the social, cultural and ceremonial observances of these people, down through the millennia of their individual and collective histories to the present day, and has existed for 40,000 years. [16] [17] [18] [19] The traditional forms include many aspects of performance and musical instrumentation which are unique to particular regions or Indigenous Australian groups; there are equally elements of musical tradition which are common or widespread through much of the Australian continent, and even beyond. The culture of the Torres Strait Islanders is related to that of adjacent parts of New Guinea and so their music is also related. Music is a vital part of Indigenous Australians' cultural maintenance. [20]

Traditional instruments


Buskers playing didgeridoos at Fremantle Markets, 2009 Buskers Fremantle Markets.jpg
Buskers playing didgeridoos at Fremantle Markets, 2009

A didgeridoo is a type of musical instrument that, according to western musicological classification, falls into the category of aerophone. It is one of the oldest instruments to date. It consists of a long tube, without finger holes, through which the player blows. It is sometimes fitted with a mouthpiece of beeswax. Didgeridoos are traditionally made of eucalyptus, but contemporary materials such as PVC piping are used. In traditional situations it is played only by men, usually as an accompaniment to ceremonial or recreational singing, or, much more rarely, as a solo instrument. Skilled players use the technique of circular breathing to achieve a continuous sound, and also employ techniques for inducing multiple harmonic resonances. Although traditionally the instrument was not widespread around the country – it was only used by Aboriginal groups in the most northerly areas .


A clapstick is a type of musical instrument that, according to western musicological classification, falls into the category of percussion. Unlike drumsticks, which are generally used to strike a drum, clapsticks are intended for striking one stick on another, and people as well. They are of oval shape with paintings of snakes, lizards, birds and more.

Gum leaf

Used as a hand-held free reed instrument.

Bull Roarer

A bullroarer consists of a weighted airfoil (a rectangular thin slat of wood about 15 cm (6 in) to 60 cm (24 in) long and about 1.25 cm (0.5 in) to 5 cm (2 in) wide) attached to a long cord. Typically, the wood slat is trimmed down to a sharp edge around the edges, and serrations along the length of the wooden slat may or may not be used, depending on the cultural traditions of the region in question.

The cord is given a slight initial twist, and the roarer is then swung in a large circle in a horizontal plane, or in a smaller circle in a vertical plane. The aerodynamics of the roarer will keep it spinning about its axis even after the initial twist has unwound. The cord winds fully first in one direction and then the other, alternating.

It makes a characteristic roaring vibrato sound with notable sound modulations occurring from the rotation of the roarer along its longitudinal axis, and the choice of whether a shorter or longer length of cord is used to spin the bullroarer. By modifying the expansiveness of its circuit and the speed given it, and by changing the plane in which the bullroarer is whirled from horizontal to vertical or vice versa, the modulation of the sound produced can be controlled, making the coding of information possible.

The low-frequency component of the sound travels extremely long distances, clearly audible over many miles on a quiet night.

Various cultures have used bullroarers as musical, ritual, and religious instruments and long-range communication devices for at least 19,000 years.[ citation needed ]

Bullroarers have been used in initiation ceremonies and in burials to ward off evil spirits, bad tidings, and especially women and children. Bullroarers are considered secret men's business by all or almost all Aboriginal tribal groups, and hence forbidden for women, children, non-initiated men, or outsiders to even hear. Fison and Howitt documented this in "Kamilaroi and Kurnai" (page 198). Anyone caught breaching the imposed secrecy was to be punished by death.

They are used in men's initiation ceremonies, and the sound they produce is considered in some indigenous cultures to represent the sound of the Rainbow Serpent [ citation needed ]. In the cultures of southeastern Australia, the sound of the bullroarer is the voice of Daramulan, and a successful bullroarer can only be made if it has been cut from a tree containing his spirit.

Use of Bullroarers have also been documented in Ancient Greece, Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia, Mali, New Zealand, and the Americas, see Bullroarer . Banks Island Eskimos were still using Bullroarers in the 1960's, an old woman Susie scaring off a hungry polar bear. [21]



In 2008, archaeologists discovered a bone flute in the Hohle Fels cave near Ulm, Germany. [22] [23] 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 finds of any musical instruments in history. [24] The Hohle Fels flute was found next to the Venus of Hohle Fels and a short distance from the oldest known human carving. [25] 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". [26] Scientists have also suggested that the discovery of the flute may help to explain why early humans survived, while Neanderthals became extinct. [24]


Cycladic statues of a double flute player (foreground) and a harpist (background) Cycladic idol 03 2 retouched.jpg
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.


Aurignacian flute made from a vulture bone, Geissenklosterle (Swabia), which is about 35,000 years old. Flauta paleolitica.jpg
Aurignacian flute made from a vulture bone, Geissenklösterle (Swabia), which is about 35,000 years old.

The oldest known wooden pipes were discovered in Wicklow, Ireland, in the winter of 2003, carbon-dated at around 2167±30 BCE. A wood-lined pit contained a group of six flutes made from yew wood, between 30 and 50 cm (12 and 20 in) long, tapered at one end, but without any finger holes. They may once have been strapped together. [27]


The oldest flute ever discovered may be the so-called Divje Babe flute, found in the Cerkno Hills, Slovenia in 1995, though this is disputed. [28] 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. [29] [30] However, whether it is truly a musical instrument or simply a carnivore-chewed bone is a matter of ongoing debate. [28] 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. [31]

The Americas


For thousands of years, Canada has been inhabited by Indigenous Peoples [Aboriginal peoples in Canada] from a variety of different cultures and of several major linguistic groupings. Each of the Indigenous communities had (and have) their own unique musical traditions. Chanting – singing is widely popular, with many of its performers also using a variety of musical instruments. [32] They used the materials at hand to make their instruments for thousands of years before Europeans immigrated to the new world. [33] They made gourds and animal horns into rattles which were elaborately carved and beautifully painted. [34] In woodland areas, they made horns of birchbark along with drumsticks of carved antlers and wood. [33] Drums were generally made of carved wood and animal hides. [35] These musical instruments provide the background for songs and dances. [35]

See also


  1. The Music of India By Reginald MASSEY, Jamila MASSEY. Google Books
  2. 1 2 Brown, RE (1971). "India's Music". Readings in Ethnomusicology.
  3. Wilkinson, Endymion (2000). Chinese history. Harvard University Asia Center.
  4. Hoppál (2006) , p.  143
  5. Diószegi (1960) , p. 203
  6. 1 2 Nattiez (2014) , program notes, page 5
  7. "Inuit Throat-Singing". Retrieved 2019-02-24.
  8. 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. Bibcode:1989Natur.338..758A. doi:10.1038/338758a0. PMID   2716823.
  9. Archived 2007-07-05 at the Wayback Machine
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. 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
  13. Voigt, Cornelia; Leitner, Stefan and Gahr, Manfred; “Repertoire and structure of duet and solo songs in cooperatively breeding white-browed sparrow weavers” Archived 2007-06-28 at the Wayback Machine in Behaviour; Vol. 143, No. 2 (February 2006), pp. 159–182
  14. 1 2 Arroyos, Rafael Pérez (2003). Egypt: Music in the Age of the Pyramids (1st ed.). Madrid: Centro de Estudios Egipcios. p. 28. ISBN   8493279617.
  15. The Music of India By Reginald MASSEY, Jamila MASSEY. Google Books
  16. Aboriginal Australia & the Torres Strait Islands: Guide to Indigenous Australia . Lonely Planet Publications. 2001. ISBN   978-1-86450-114-8 . Retrieved 13 May 2013.
  17. Fiona Richards (2007). The Soundscapes of Australia: Music, Place And Spirituality. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. ISBN   978-0-7546-4072-1 . Retrieved 13 May 2013.
  18. Newton, Janice (1990). "Becoming 'Authentic' Australians through Music". Social Analysis: The International Journal of Social and Cultural Practice. 27 (27): 93–101. JSTOR   23164573.
  19. Dunbar‐Hall, P.; Gibson, C. (2000). "Singing about nations within nations: Geopolitics and identity in Australian indigenous rock music". Popular Music and Society. 24 (2): 45–73. doi:10.1080/03007760008591767.
  20. Wilurarra Creative (2010). Music Archived 11 October 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  21. Douglas, William O. (1965). National Geographic. p. 125(5): 702-735.
  22. Wilford, John N. (June 24, 2009). "Flutes Offer Clues to Stone-Age Music". Nature. The New York Times. 459 (7244): 248–52. Bibcode:2009Natur.459..248C. doi:10.1038/nature07995. PMID   19444215 . Retrieved June 29, 2009.
  23. "Schwäbische Alb: Älteste Flöte vom Hohle Fels". (in German). Retrieved 2019-02-24.
  24. 1 2 "'Oldest musical instrument' found". BBC news . 2009-06-25. Retrieved 2009-06-26.
  25. "Music for cavemen". MSNBC. 2009-06-24. Archived from the original on 2009-06-26. Retrieved 2009-06-26.
  26. "Flutes Offer Clues to Stone-Age Music". The New York Times . 2009-06-24. Retrieved 2009-06-26.
  27. Clint Goss (2012). "The Wicklow Pipes / The Development of Flutes in Europe and Asia". Flutopedia. Retrieved 2012-01-09.
  28. 1 2 d'Errico, Francesco, Paola Villa, Ana C. Pinto Llona, and Rosa Ruiz Idarraga (1998). "A Middle Palaeolithic origin of music? Using cave-bear bone accumulations to assess the Divje Babe I bone 'flute'". Antiquity. 72 (March) (275): 65–79. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00086282. Archived from the original (Abstract) on 2012-12-22.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  29. Tenenbaum, David (June 2000). "Neanderthal jam". The Why Files. University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents. Retrieved 14 March 2006.
  30. Flute History, UCLA. Retrieved June 2007.
  31. "Earliest music instruments found". 2012-05-25. Retrieved 2019-02-24.
  32. Elaine Keillor; Tim Archambault; John M. H. Kelly (March 31, 2013). Encyclopedia of Native American Music of North America. ABC-CLIO. pp. 306–. ISBN   978-0-313-05506-5.
  33. 1 2 Patterson, Nancy-Lou (1973). Canadian native art; arts and crafts of Canadian Indians and Eskimos. Don Mills, Ont., Collier-Macmillan. p. 36. ISBN   0-02-975610-3.
  34. "The Aboriginal Curatorial Collective". kingfisher (ACC/CCA). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2008-11-20. Retrieved 2009-10-28.
  35. 1 2 Flanagan, Tom (2008). First Nations?.. Second Thoughts. by Thomas Flanagan (2nd ed.). pp. 12–28. ISBN   978-0-7735-3443-8.

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Outline of prehistoric technology Overview of and topical guide to prehistoric technology

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Further reading