The Golden Oldies.

Posted: June 7, 2012 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , ,

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

A couple days ago the New York Times ran a story about the re-dating of an ancient flute found in modern day Germany.  The flute, made of bird bone and mammoth ivory, was thought to be 36,000 years old but more recent dating has pushed the age of the flute to roughly 43,000 years old.  This is the oldest musical instrument known, though that doesn’t mean it was the first musical instrument.  Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence.  I have no doubt that buried deep within caves of Africa there exist remnants of even more ancient musical instruments that early humans crafted and used.

Lascaux Cave Bull

Though there may be older ones waiting to be found, a 43,000 year old flute is pretty darned ancient.  To put this into context, the famous cave art at Lascaux was probably completed 25,000 years after this flute was utilized. This is more than just an interesting side-note in the New York Times Science section, or in the world of archeology. This flute says something important about humanity.  Such an amazing finding provides evidence that music is as ancient as any human artistic expression and that human nature is inherently musical. Symbolic language is usually the trait scientists identify as to what makes humans different from other animals, but music cannot be far off. In fact, evolutionary archeologist Steven Mithen believes that human language and human music are very much interrelated. Though this is a controversial idea, there is no debating that the symbolic use of music provides another example of human uniqueness.

Knowledge of the flute raises the inevitable question: What did these ancient Europeans use music for? That we may never know, but it sure is fun to guess.  A safe assumption would be that music was central to proto-religious and spiritual rituals; perhaps it was utilized to calm nerves and entrance listeners, especially infants; or, maybe music was used for entertainment and dance.   It doesn’t seem like a big stretch to believe that dance went hand in hand with this ancient instrument. Dance has probably been with us for as long as music, though, of course, there will never be any physical remnant found that proves this to be the case.  But just as music is a part of all human cultures, dance and physical reactions to music are as well.  It doesn’t matter who you are, it is darned near impossible not to have a kinetic reaction to music as it is played.  Tapping of toes, drumming of fingers, whistling, humming; these things come naturally.

I would go so far as to argue that dance is an inborn human response to music. If this seems doubtful to you, crank up some beats for the nearest infant you can find.  The smallest children are enthralled by music, and will move rhythmically when some tune catches their attention.  I know this first hand, since at 6 to 9 months old my daughters loved playing drums, blowing flutes, and hitting piano keys, while swaying or shaking rhythmically to the sounds they made. Children develop this desire even before they have the ability to speak words.  I am sure 43,000 years ago, some prehistoric parents were amazed to figure this out; or, maybe they were simply relieved to realize a good way to keep their baby occupied was to let him pound on the ole’ reindeer hide drums.

  1. PG says:

    I like your example of turning up music around kids and seeing how they react, because they are uninhibited and don’t care if they look silly while dancing; thus, their reaction is more natural and honest. It’s funny then, in contrast, to see how desperately some adults try to restrain that natural desire to dance/move out of fear of looking silly. (We’ve all been to a concert and seen people – mostly guys – who are so obviously trying to hold back.)

    It would be interesting to discover what the purpose of music was back then. The idea that it was just natural and soothing rings true to me. On my piano, if I sit down and just punch out some notes – even if not playing a true “song” – the sound is just relaxing and soothing. The same can even be said of my “louder” instruments like the drums or electric guitar.

  2. Sergiu Smerica says:

    The lifestyle of early humans always seemed very interesting to me. The tools used by them are very interesting, and their ability to create items with their bare hands was very beneficial to the evolution of humans. The main question was what could they have used the flute for 43 thousand years ago. The main answer to this, as it was states, is the fact that music can be used in direct correlation with language. Personally, I do not know how humans communicated 43 thousand years ago, but in my opinion their language was definitely not developed. The flute could of had many used such as announcing an incoming threat or the need to go hunting. It can be used to keep groups of people organized in order to be able to work together.

    On the other hand, the flute could have been nothing more than an instrument used to create music. Not much is known about early humans and how they acted, but this find shows that they were developed enough in order to produce sounds with instruments. Music can be a relaxing way to cope with the tough events in life, or maybe it was even used for the purpose of dancing. The beats of a song make most people want to move around, and it also help babies develop.

    In my opinion, I find it more likely for the flute to be used as a signaling tool. I find it hard to believe that early humans were interested in the art of music, but the flute would have been a good tool in order for groups of people to stay organized and aware in case of a threat. This would have been a good and easy form of communication and it would have been used by the leaders of the tribe.

    Whichever one was the purpose of the flute, one thing is for sure; the ingenuity of early humans never fails to impress me. This is a pretty advanced tool even though it’s made of bone, but it shows how humans slowly evolved into very intelligent creatures. Our brains were able to aid us in becoming the top of the food chain, and having the ability to develop such advanced societies over time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s