The Stone Age: Music, Flutes & Other Instruments

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

What was life like for ancient people? Perhaps a little more musical than you'd expect. In this lesson, we'll examine ancient instruments and theories about the role of music in Stone Age life.

The Original Rock Music

Modern musicians know how to rock, and rock hard. But you know who rocked even harder? People who had to deal with saber-tooth cats and giant cave bears in their world, and still found time to create music using only stone tools. I'd say that's super metal, but metal hadn't been discovered yet. It's super… rocky.

In the Stone Age, a broad term for human civilization prior to the advent of metal technologies, human societies were pretty different from today. For this lesson, we'll be focusing on the part of the Stone Age known as the Paleolithic, or the ''Old Stone Age,'' before the development of agriculture. This was actually the vast majority of all human history, with people living in small nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers. While these people lived different lives than we do, they were still anatomically human in every way, including the ability to create and appreciate music. To put it simply, people of the Stone Age knew how to rock.

Instruments

Music is really only as good as the instruments used to create it, so what were Paleolithic people using? Archeologists have discovered evidence that ancient people had various forms of percussion instruments, created by hitting rocks or wooden mallets against a hollow object. However, when we're talking about the de facto instrument of Paleolithic life, then we have to focus on the flute.

Fragment of a Paleolithic flute
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Ancient flutes have been discovered in Paleolithic sites around the world, from Mesoamerica to East Asia to Europe. In general, these instruments were made of hollowed bone, incised with stone tools to form air holes that changed the pitch. Why bones? Well, they're already partly hollow, they're durable, and their soft enough to carve with a stone tool. Plus, bones would have been available after every hunt. On top of deer and other common game, we've also found flutes made of cave bear and vulture bones, as well as mammoth ivory.

For a while, archeologists thought that ancient humans were too primitive to create sophisticated music, but then these flutes started showing up in more archeological sites. One in Germany was found to be 36,000 years old, helping to prove that ancient humans were as intellectually astute as modern humans. After all, the task of creating, tuning, and systematically using instruments requires a high degree of mental acumen. Since then, other flutes have been found dating as far back as 45,000 BCE in Germany, France, Turkey, and India.

Flutes seem to have been important parts of Paleolithic music
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Lost Music

Flutes appear in Europe in direct association with the arrival of humans, which suggests a truly ancient root to music in human societies. However, we have to remember that these flutes only represent the tip of the iceberg. They're significant because they prove that ancient humans created sophisticated music, but they tell us relatively little about that music.

The reason for this is that bone flutes are exceptional for their ability to survive the processes of time. Considering the materials that ancient people would have had available, it's very likely that the majority of their instruments (and even most of their flutes) were made of decomposable organic materials like wood, reeds, or animal skins. Of course, that doesn't even get into the non-instrumental aspects of music. Clapping, singing, and other forms of bodily instrumentation were almost certainly crucial parts of Paleolithic music, but unfortunately those voices were not preserved in the archeological record.

Studying musical traditions in modern hunter-gatherer societies may give us some clue as to the possible roles of music in Paleolithic societies
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The Importance of Paleolithic Music

It's really interesting to imagine what kinds of music Paleolithic people may have developed, but does it really matter? The answer is: yes. Yes, it does. While many archeologists theorize that Neanderthals could have potentially created basic musical rhythms, sophisticated instruments like flutes only really become common features in the archeological record with the evolution and dispersion of humans.

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