Posts Tagged ‘Archeology’

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.