How Was The Earliest Known Music Created?
The earliest known musical instruments are as old as humanity itself and have been unearthed in excavations across the globe. From bone flute fragments to hollowed-out logs and animal bones, researchers have uncovered a variety of relics that provide insight into the first musicians.
We know from anthropological and linguistic research that music has always been an important part of human life. It is universal among all cultures, suggesting it may be innate rather than learned. There is no evidence of a “primitive” stage where music did not exist. Even in pre-literate societies, music could have therefore been an early development of humans. How this came about, however, is still something of a mystery.
The oldest instruments discovered so far date from around 40,000 years ago up until the first written records around 5500 years ago. While they appear simple compared to the range of instruments used today, they could only have been invented after our ancestors became fully human and their brains developed speech, music, and other cognitive skills. Let’s take a look at some of them:
The oldest musical instruments are bone flutes that were made by Neanderthals and modern humans in Europe and Southwest Asia between 40,000 and 35,000 years ago. These flutes were produced by carefully splitting animal long bones (specifically the leg bones of birds such as cranes, swans, and vultures). The resulting open ends were then pierced with a blow from a wooden or bone tool and a subsequent scraping removed the rough edges of the wound to make the inside smooth. A final carved notch, placed at the distal end of the tube, was probably used to hold a piece of the bird’s skin as a sound reed.
These flutes are relatively large, presumably because the Neanderthals and early modern humans who created them had relatively thick lips and tongues.
Around 30,000 years ago, someone in East Asia made a flute from jadeite, a rare type of green-colored rock, by carving it into a cylinder and then drilling a hole down its center. This is the earliest example of a musical instrument made from stone. It has survived because it was buried in a tomb in China where it was later discovered.
The jadeite flute was blown through a single hole near one end, producing a single note that was reminiscent of a modern C-sharp on a piano. The flute is relatively short, which suggests that its maker had relatively thin lips and tongues.
Whether the flute was used in a ritual context or as part of a musical performance is unknown, although it seems likely that the sound would have been used to make a special effect rather than to play a tune.
Shrinking discs and rattles
Around 25,000 years ago, people living in what is now South Africa carved small discs and cones out of soapstone (a soft, easily carved rock). The discs were decorated with incised lines, while the cones were carved into rattles. Soapstone is not an ideal material for instruments: it is soft and easily broken, but we know about these objects because they were preserved in burials. They may have been used in rituals, perhaps as rattles or clappers.
Rattles made from various materials, such as seeds, gourds, and shells, have been found at sites across the globe. One of the oldest rattles is a carved stone disc covered in shells dating from around 28,000 years ago, found in the Hohle Fels cave in Germany. The oldest clay rattles are from Japan dating between 11,000 and 12,000 years ago.
Whistles and drums
Around 10,000 years ago, people in Southwest Asia made the earliest known whistles and drums. The drums were originally made from animal skins stretched over a wooden frame, similar to the drums still used in many cultures today. The whistles were probably used as signals, while the drums may have been used in both ritual and music, perhaps with other instruments. The drums were made from wooden planks, with goatskin heads at one end and wooden pegs at the other.
Drums have been found in almost all regions where early humans lived. They were made of hollowed-out logs, animal hides, and other materials. One of the oldest is a carved wooden log drum unearthed in a cave in central Asia. The drum is estimated to be between 37,000 and 26,000 years old and may be even older than the previously mentioned flutes and rattles.
The earliest known musical instruments were made some 40,000 years ago, around the time when fully modern humans first appeared. They are all relatively simple instruments, most of which were made out of wood or soft stone such as soapstone. These instruments provide evidence that music was probably important to early humans. Indeed, they are so old that they were almost certainly played by the Neanderthals.
Early music was probably used in rituals and perhaps even as a way of communicating. As people became more organized and settled, music would have developed and become an important part of their culture.