How did we invent music?

Establish when, how and why mankind invented the music throughout prehistory is quite complex, and it is a question that has long fascinated archaeologists, anthropologists, biologists and psychologists. On the one hand there are those who believe that the need to produce music was one evolutionary necessity linked to sexual selection, a bit like for some species of birds, while others believe that music developed with communicative and expressive needs, in a way similar to the birth of language. This art form, spread across the entire human race, owes its name to Musesthe protectors of the arts of Greek Mythology.

The discovery of music

The possibility of creating sounds with the voice or with instruments was most likely well known by our ancestors as were the possibilities of expressing themselves and communicating. The existence of the concept of music as an artistic form can certainly be dated to the period of Upper Paleolithic (between 50,000 and 12,000 years ago). Archaeologists have in fact found artefacts that can be interpreted as ancient musical instruments in contexts dating back to this era. These are mainly flutes made from animal bones.

However, since the flute is already a rather sophisticated instrument in itself, it is probable that simpler percussion instruments have already existed for much longer, not to mention the vocal singing, whose origins probably went hand in hand with those of language. Considering these factors, it is plausible to believe that music, as a human experience, already existed during the Middle Paleolithic (between 300,000 and 50,000 years ago), although there is currently no evidence to prove it. Any archaeological remains of tools made of perishable materials, such as wood, leather, or other elements of vegetal or animal origin are very unlikely to be preserved after many millennia.

The oldest musical instruments in the world

During the Middle Paleolithic, our species emerged, anatomically modern man, that is Homo sapiens. For a long period of time it coexisted in Europe with our closest relative, Homo neanderthalensis, before the latter became extinct. What is believed to be the oldest musical instrument in the world, the flute by Divje Babeseems to come from a context inhabited by Neanderthal man.

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The flute was found by archaeologists in 1995, during excavations in the Divje Babe cave, in Slovenia, and is exhibited today at the Slovenian National Museum in the capital Ljubljana. It is a femur of a young cave bear on which there are 5 holes that appear to have been made intentionally. By adopting the stratigraphic method and the electronic spin resonance technique, the flute has been dated to a period ranging from 60,000 to 50,000 years agotherefore at the end of the Middle Paleolithic.

The identification of the Divje Babe flute as the world’s oldest musical instrument has not been without criticism. According to some archaeologists, it would be risky to attribute such advanced capabilities of symbolic behavior to Neanderthal man, and it would be more plausible to believe that the holes present on the femur fragment were caused by gnawing of the bone by some animal.

The oldest musical instruments on which archaeologists agree, dating back to the Upper Paleolithic, are the bone and ivory flutes coming from two caves in southwestern Germany, Feels And Geissenklösterle. These flutes have been attributed to Homo sapiens and dated to a passing period from 43,000 to 35,000 years ago. One was made from a vulture radium, two from swan bones and one from the tusk of a woolly mammoth.

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How was music born?

It is impossible to try to understand why primitive men felt the need to produce music at a certain point. According to scholars who support the theory of sexual selectionsinging or playing would have been functional to performance of courtship. Researchers who instead consider music to be a means of communication similar to language think that this is useful in the perspective of create cohesion in human groupsor by imitation of the sounds of nature, or even to create a connection with the supernatural universe.