A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Remixing the sounds of the Stone Age
Using only materials available 30,000 years ago, archaeologist Elizabeth Blake demonstrates the tones that could have been produced by flint blades. (Courtesy Kristi Bledsoe)
Elizabeth Blake suspended three flint blades from a small wooden frame. Holding her cell phone in one hand, she took a piece of antler in the other and gently struck each blade once. Over a bad transatlantic connection, our phone conversation had been difficult, but the tones from the four-inch-long blades came through—clear, sweet, and crystalline. They sounded like hand bells or struck goblets. The blades are replicas of 30,000-year-old artifacts from the sites of Isturitz in the French Pyrenees and Geißenklösterle in southwestern Germany.
A 30,000-year-old bird bone flute excavated from Isturitz, France. Hash marks above the top hole might have been a type of musical notation. (Francesco d'Errico, University of Bordeaux, France)
Blake, who is the granddaughter of an opera singer and the daughter of a pianist, is an archaeology graduate student at Cambridge University. One of the newest members of a developing sub-discipline, the archaeology of music, she is basing her research on the hypothesis that our earliest ancestors discovered and enjoyed a peculiar property of some stone tools—they rang.
“You simply don’t have a society in which there is no music, and when you do anything interesting music seems to happen,” says Ian Cross, a Cambridge musicologist who is also Blake’s thesis advisor. Cross’s interests have drawn him into archaeology. “You could think of music as an epiphenomenon—something that happens when people do things.” When people celebrate, for instance, or mourn, or have rituals, or make love, they seem to want music around. But why, and how did it start? Archaeologists have only begun to address these questions using the tools of modern science in the last few years.
The major difficulty that prehistoric musicologists face is that it’s so easy to make music without leaving a trace. In addition to dancing and singing, hunter-gatherer cultures used natural materials to create instruments. Native Americans shook rattles made from gourds. Australian aborigines played instruments called didgeridoos fashioned from huge tree limbs or bamboo. The San of southwest Africa plucked the gut strings of their wooden hunting bows. What are the odds these would survive for thousands of years to be found (let alone correctly identified) by an archaeologist? The best anyone can expect to discover is when humans first began to create reliable and durable instruments.
Lois Wingerson is a science writer based in Brooklyn, New York, and author of Unnatural Selection: The Promise and the Power of Human Gene Research.