Foxy flutes: the origins of music


Music is a central part of all cultures and is possibly the only universal form of expression. Regardless of language or culture music has the power to share and elicit emotions with listeners. While the genesis of art as a part of culture has been well studied, the emergence of music in our hominid ancestors is a field that has been left to the wayside somewhat despite the fact that the development of such a complex and universal vocabulary clearly can teach us about the development of human language, culture, and the brain.

One frustrating aspect of the studying development of speech and music is all we have to rely on is the fossil record which can tell us about brain and vertebrae size, but little about the anatomy of the brain itself. What we do know is that starting with Homo heidelbergensis five to six hundred thousand years ago, the level of fine control over the breathing musculature, evidenced by widening of thoracic vertebrae was at the level of modern humans (MacLarnon 1999). Moreover, Homo heidelbergensis had a complex ear

While it may no longer be visible, there was once a complex ear here

that suggests they had auditory sensitivity similar to modern humans (Martínez et. al., 2004). The development of these features suggests our ancestors had the capacity to vocalize and hear in complex ways, and more intriguingly had a need to expend resources on developing this system. One common theory is that music initially developed from more primitive vocalizations as a sort of early vocabulary to express general thoughts and emotions. Given this hypothesis, the development of music is both a driver and a result of the evolution of language.

Music may have have existed side by side with early humans in the culture of the Neandethals. While it was classically believed that Neanderthals lacked language, the evidence we have of their anatomy suggests speech would have been possible. Suggestively, a study by Krause et. al., has shown Neanderthals share with us the FOXP2 gene, a gene that implicated in the development of speech and language (Krause et. al., 2007). Chimpanzees; our closest living relatives who lack both speech and music do not carry the same copy of this gene. While it is impossible to determine if the Neanderthals had spoken language, there is evidence they made instruments, for example the Divje Bebe flute, a pice of cave bear femur with spaced holes that is around 43,100 years old, predating the earliest human-made instruments which date to around 35,000 years ago (Conrad 2009).

The Divje Bebe Flute

Modern musicians have recreated the instrument, and played it (with a beard that in my mind adds to historical accuracy) to give us a sense of how it would have sounded.

Neanderthals unlike humans were culturally static over several hundred thousand years; meaning they reached a level of sophistication in the creation of tools and other artifacts and stayed there without further development (Nakahashi, 2013). The notion that music played a part in this society, despite its seeming lack of creativity speaks to the value of music as a form of boding and expression even in a very primitive society. While music’s contribution to survival may not be immediately evident, the ability of music to bring people together, both in times of grief and joy provides an obvious social benefit. The archaeological record suggests to us that the development of language and music predates modern humans, and likely played a role in the evolution of society. Music has an amazing ability to bring us together, and it is comforting to think that were we transported to a campfire 300,000 years in the past we would have something in common with the ancestors we found there.

Conard, N. J., Malina, M., & Münzel, S. C. (2009). New flutes document the earliest musical tradition in southwestern Germany. Nature460(7256), 737-740.

Krause, J., Lalueza-Fox, C., Orlando, L., Enard, W., Green, R. E., Burbano, H. A., … & Bertranpetit, J. (2007). The derived FOXP2 variant of modern humans was shared with Neandertals. Current biology17(21), 1908-1912.

Martínez, I., Rosa, M., Arsuaga, J. L., Jarabo, P., Quam, R., Lorenzo, C., … & Carbonell, E. (2004). Auditory capacities in Middle Pleistocene humans from the Sierra de Atapuerca in Spain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(27), 9976-9981.

MacLarnon, A. M., & Hewitt, G. P. (1999). The evolution of human speech: The role of enhanced breathing control. American journal of physical anthropology, 109(3), 341-363.

Nakahashi, W. (2013). Cultural evolution and learning strategies in hominids. In Dynamics of Learning in Neanderthals and Modern Humans Volume 1 (pp. 245-254). Springer Japan.



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