I am not the most tech savvy old guy around and I have never been one for keeping up with the fashion. I understand that marching out the hot, new version of our tech devices is more about marketing than true innovation. I dislike having to upgrade a 2 year old OS because my bank no longer supports the old one. I know that scientific advancement has solved many problems and will solve many more should humanity linger awhile longer (not so probable if you read Stephen Hawking’s latest thoughts on the matter). I know that such advancements also engender a new set of problems but I do not want to discuss those now. I am old enough to remember the marvels of TV and then color TV and I am old enough to have heard some of the best music ever from an AM radio station 500 miles away fading in the static of a storm.
I also know the importance of sitting in the dark around a fire or sitting at the kitchen window and watching the weather for the full development of a sense of whimsy and wonder. Consider this bone flute from our prehistoric ancestors in eastern Europe around 35,000 years ago.
From yet another article in the Origin of Music I gained a sense of how such an instrument was devised. Drago Kunej and Ivan Turk give a detailed report of their research into another bone artifact from even earlier around 45,000 years ago, including their attempts to replicate such an instrument (if indeed it was a musical instrument) and what music it might have played. They lay out the data in great and delightful fashion and are appropriately cautious in their conclusions, but I will take their surmises beyond the hypothetical stage. Recent readings have come together to indicate our hominid line appeared 1.5 million years ago; language would seem not very far behind if indeed some symbolic capacity was not part of the current and flow pressuring our evolution at that point. Modern humans including Neanderthals do not appear before say 60,000 years ago. Remember the oldest known paintings are around 35,000 years ago.
This article stimulated my imagination about the earliest innovations of artistic technologies. Researchers have analyzed the pigments and means of brushing or blowing the paint onto the cave walls. Kunej and Turk have researched how these flutes may have been made. Round holes in bones seem to have been chipped initially before tools for boring were developed. Even using a chipping tool involves some twisting to get the hole round and even. Many bones have oblong holes made by teeth as carnivores sought the precious bone marrow but these flute holes are quite round. Many questions arise: How were they placed? Were the ends open or closed? If closed, left closed or opened and then plugged up? Any old hominid can pick up a bone or a hollow elder branch and blow in it but the researchers demonstrated that it takes some experimentation to find the most effective way to blow across the flute edge and make a musical tone. Over time our ancestors also found that spacing the holes would yield different notes and combinations, some more pleasing than others. They speculate that such innovations took many generations to develop and spread culturally. And then, I guess, some genes for a musical ear began to be selected more successfully.
Much of what I have read assumes music began with singing and dancing with drumming; you don’t need much technology there, a good hollow log will do. Flutes and harps took more time and thought and innovation. Of course today we can take an electronic keyboard and make it sound like any instrument around; I still like the image of one of the Homo lineage blowing across the bone end and chipping holes in it until over the crackle of a warm fire plays some musical notes. Travel on.