Prehistoric Instruments May Have Been Stone

The sound is like a gentle rain of quick, high-pitched notes, accented by an occasional “ping.” It’s played from an unlikely source and scientists believe it could be a model of man’s earliest music.

“We took the strategy of taking what materials preserve well — stone tools — and then we asked, ‘could they make suitable instruments?’ ” says Frank Cowan, the assistant curator of archaeology at the Cincinnati Museum Center who fashioned the stone instruments. “The answer is yes.”

Scientists have long pondered how early our ancient ancestors began creating music. Flutes, crafted from vulture-wing bones about 36,000 years ago in France, are the earliest confirmed instruments. In 1996 scientists claimed they had found an even older flute, made from bear bone, in a site that our ancestral cousins, Neanderthals, inhabited 43,000 years ago. But researchers have since argued an animal’s chewing teeth created the bone’s holes, not a prehistoric musician.

The problem is, materials that might have made the best ancient instruments, like bone, canvas and wood, don’t preserve well. Stone, on the other hand, preserves very well. Stone tools date as far back as 2.5 million years. Could prehistoric people have played their stone tools as instruments? To find out, the team of scientists decided they had to try themselves.

The Ring of Clicking Flint

Under the guidance of University of Buffalo archaeologist Ezra Zubrow and University of Cambridge musicologist Ian Cross, Cowan crafted about 100 stone instruments. He struck flakes of flint from the core of a large rock and chipped them into mostly long and narrow shapes. Then he tailored each piece, adding a curve here or a sharp edge there.

The stone tools were then presented to a group of musicians from the University of Cambridge who played them by clicking one stone against another. Because flint, which is a variety of quartz, has many glass-like qualities, striking the stones together created sounds with a slight ring. But, just as different violins or pianos produce different quality sounds, so did the stone flakes.

“Some of them sounded pretty dead,” says Cowan. “But others had some very nice, very pure tones.”

After some practice, a group of six musicians came up with a recording that sounds something like a mystical movie sound track (see attached audio file at the top of the page).

Not only can the stone flakes create music, they also double as cutting tools. That’s because the scientists believe our ancestors were most likely practical people and may have used their stone tools both for playing and cutting. Cowan has fashioned thousands of stone tools in an effort to understand ancient tool-making and he reports the process, itself, can be musical.

“I become very attuned to the sound qualities of the stone as I make tools,” he says. “I really think the musical properties of the stone would not have been lost on our ancestors.”

Zubrow and Cross have studied the stone instruments their team created in great detail. The next step is to find similar patterns in stone tools from the archaeological record that date as far back as 2.5 million years to confirm the tools may also have been used for music.

“When we put the material under the microscope, we found there was a unique wear pattern,” says Zubrow. “So if you played them as instruments, the results were very different than if they had been used as knives.”

So far they’ve found a couple of pieces from a collection taken from a site of early Homo sapiens in France that seem to have the same wear patterns as the team’s stone instruments. Zubrow emphasizes, however, that those results are still premature.

Fascinated by Sound

Although clicking flint flakes may not be the easiest way to make music, some scientists are convinced ancient people devised a way to do it.

“I’ve always thought that stone tools may have been used as musical instruments because people have always been fascinated with the sound effects they get from doing everyday things,” says Graeme Lawson, an archaeologist at the University of Cambridge who specializes in ancient instruments. “I think that would be no less true in early prehistoric times. The problem has been in proving it.”

Being able to identify and date instruments to a very early time might also help settle another debate: whether music played a role in helping early humans develop cognitive abilities, including language. The M.I.T. linguist Steven Pinker argues that music played only a peripheral role in our ancestors’ development. As he writes in his book, How the Mind Works, “music is auditory cheesecake.”

“Compared with language, vision, social reasoning and physical know-how, music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyles would be virtually unchanged,” he writes.

But Cross, the musicologist who helped conceive the stone instrument project, believes music may have been a critical signal of why our ancestors survived while Neanderthals and Homo erectus did not. He points out that most musical artifacts have been found only in sites where our direct ancestors, Homo sapiens, lived. Might that, he writes in an essay in Music, Mind and Science, “constitute a competence specific to our species?”

“Listen to someone speaking Chinese and if you don’t know the language, you won’t understand anything,” says Zubrow. “But listen to Chinese music and you’ll be able to enjoy and understand it to some degree. Because it’s more general, maybe music did precede language.”

Whether or not music helped shape the minds of ancient people, Zubrow is at least confident it helped shape a pleasant society.

“I think we all have this idea that early people were violent,” he says. “So I think it would be awfully nice to show that wasn’t entirely the case. It would be very nice to trace that civilizing influences like music have been around for as long as violent ones.”

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