Prehistoric music refers to all of the world’s music that has existed before the written history.
Since pre means before, and history is the record of human events, prehistory refers to the period before the written history. Prehistory begins with the appearance of the human being and ends with the invention of writing systems. We don’t know a lot about prehistory. Even scientists often speculate about what happened back then. They study fossils and artifacts to help them theorize about prehistory.
Different cultures adopted writing at different times. Therefore, the end of prehistory came at different times in different places. Ancient Sumer and Egypt were among the first ancient civilizations to invent writing systems, and to keep historical records during the early Bronze Age. Neighboring civilizations followed them. For most of the others, the prehistory ended during the Iron Age.
The three-age system is a system for classifying prehistoric artifacts according to successive periods of technological development. In the late 19th century Danish scholar Christian J. Thomsen came up with these terms. These three ages are Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age.
1. Stone Age
The Stone Age is a long prehistoric period. It begins with the first production of stone implements and ends with the first use of bronze. According to the Three-age System, there are three major subdivisions of the Stone Age. They are Paleolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic periods.
a. Paleolithic (Old Stone Age)
Paleolithic is the first period of the Stone Age. It begins with the development of stone tools and ends with the last Ice Age, about 9,600 BCE. This period covers 99% of human technological prehistory.
According to the fossils found by archeologists, the complexity and the quality of the tools gradually increased in this period. There were several stone industries. The earliest was Oldowan. Then there was Acheulean who produced more complex and symmetrical shapes with sharp edges. Towards the end of the Paleolithic, we see the first expressions of the art in the forms of personal ornaments, cave paintings, and moveable artwork. (such as Venus figurines)
b. Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age)
Mesolithic is the period that begins with the end of Ice Age and ends when agriculture starts. It is the final period of hunter-gatherer cultures. Because agriculture developed at different times in different regions of the world, there is no single date for the end of this period.
During this period, as the climate was getting warmer, large-scale changes took place on the Earth. Compared to the preceding periods, there is less surviving art from the Mesolithic. The Rock art of the Iberian Mediterranean Basin is probably dating from the Mesolithic and to the Upper Paleolithic periods. This artwork shows some use of clothing, and scenes of dancing, fighting, hunting and food-gathering.
c. Neolithic (New Stone Age)
Neolithic is the final division of the Stone Age. It begins with the introduction of agriculture and animal domestication. Humans shifted from food gathering to food producing. During this period, we see other revolutionary changes including the development of pottery, polished stone tools, and construction of more complex and larger settlements such as Göbekli Tepe and Çatal Höyük. Also, as the people settled, we see the earliest evidence for trade. Towards the end of this period, we see the introduction of copper metallurgy.
2. Bronze Age
The Bronze Age is the period that begins when people made tools from bronze which is a mixture of metals. This period features proto-writing and early urban civilization in some areas.
People produced bronze by smelting their copper and alloying them with tin, arsenic, and some other metals. Bronze is harder than other metals at the time. Therefore, the Bronze Age civilizations gained a technological advantage.
According to some archaeologists, people became more organized in the Bronze Age, because the making of metal tools was difficult. By the Bronze Age, agriculture was a prominent part of the diet. Also, people domesticated some animals like sheep, wolves, cows, and goats.
3. Iron Age
The Iron Age is the period that begins with the production of iron. Although most of Europe, Africa, and Asia reached the Iron Age by 500 BC, in some areas like Anatolia and Mesopotamia, the iron production took place earlier.
Iron is easy to find, but hard to make into tools. It is better than bronze. Therefore, it provided people a further advancement in technology. When blacksmiths learned how to make iron tools, they were able to make many of them. People were able to make better tools. Some of them even invented coins to help buy and sell their crops and tools.
This period ended when people invented the writing systems and started recording their history.
Because the term prehistory refers to the period before the invention of writing systems, it is difficult to determine the origin of music. There are many theories about it.
Some say that the origin of music is the sounds of nature. People may have imitated these phenomena by singing, clapping or beating their hands on a surface. It may be related to their beliefs. Even today in some shamanistic beliefs, people imitate natural sounds with their music.
According to Charles Darwin, music may have begun as a mating strategy. Birds and some other species produce music such as calls to attract mates.
There are some other theories about the purpose of music in prehistoric cultures. Some believe that music may help to lure animals in a hunt or encourage hunters. Others suggest that the first instrument was the human voice and music probably began with the lullabies of mothers to soothe their infants.
Prehistoric Musical Instruments
Whatever the purpose of music, the findings from Paleolithic archaeological sites suggest that prehistoric people carved different materials to create instruments. Some scientists suggest that the Neanderthal Flute (or Divje Babe Flute) is the oldest instruments in the world. However, whether it is a real musical instrument or a chewed bone is controversial.
In 2008, archaeologists found a bone with a flute shape in Hohle Fels cave in Germany. It was 35,000 years old. Four years later, they found some flutes in Geissenklösterle cave. These flutes were at least 42,000 years old. Also, these caves yielded the first expression of art in human history.
In the winter of 2003, Irish archaeologists found the oldest wooden pipes in Wicklow, Ireland. Isturitz cave in France is also another site that archaeologists found bone-flutes. In 1986, Chinese archaeologists found 30 bone-flutes dating to about 6000 BCE in Jiahu, China. These are the most important musical instruments of the prehistoric period. Now, let’s have a look at the timeline. So, you can read more about these instruments.
Prehistoric music also help scientists to explain why early humans survived, while Neanderthals became extinct.