40,000 years ago, Sgt Pepper taught the band to play.
The band was Homo sapiens (our species) at approximately the same time—give or take thousands of years—that our ancestors left the savannas of Africa and crossed into Asia and Europe.
Homo sapiens spread across Europe ducking into caves for shelter and leaving behind stone tools, statuettes of rotund women, jewelry, cave paintings and bone flutes.
The oldest bone flute, estimated to be 43,000 to 60,000 years old, was found in Divje Babe cave in Slovenia. The flute was carved from the femur bone of a juvenile cave bear with four finger holes, similar to other flutes of the era. With one exception: this cave housed Neanderthals, our hominid cousins.
Neanderthals were more cultured than previously thought: they buried their dead, adorned themselves with feathers, painted their bodies red and black, and spent happy evenings by the campfire listening to the old bone flute.
Were Neanderthals the progenitors of soul-soothing, inspirational funky, funky music? The Sgt. Pepper to Homo sapiens?
Did four-hole bone flutes somehow provide a genetic edge in the quest for survival? Was there a musical ocarina opportunity long ago?
Sadly, the bone flute did not help the Neanderthals survive. They became extinct about 30,000 years ago, giving us an approximate 10,000 year window to curate the Neanderthal greatest hits compilation. Homo sapiens survived and continued down the music making path, from bone flutes to Bach to the Beatles.
Why did our ancestors explore music and continue making music?
Was the hot bone flute player in demand as a sexual partner giving him or her more chances to replicate their DNA? (There is no evidence that prehistoric music was gender specific, in spite of many scholars assuming that men were the musicians.)
One theory proposes that Homo sapiens learned to step in unison to reduce walking noise and thereby evade predators. This might explain Irish step-dancing, but doesn’t explain our love of tonal music.
Unify tribal and social groups?
Hark, they’re playing our song. Music could have played a role in the creation and expansion of social networks. Like birds, music could have been used to mark territory and warn or even drive off intruders—a tactic still used today. In Des Moines, downtown buildings solved the problem of teenage loiterers by playing classical music outside the doorways. In Panama, the U.S. Army tried to pry Manuel Noriega out of his sanctuary in the Apostolic Nunciature by blasting him with Van Halen, Guns and Roses and the Clash. It was called Operation Nifty.
Maybe our ancestors picked up the bone flute because it was fun. Consider any musician you know: why do they play music? Do we think that Prince or Keith Richards became musicians to increase the spread of their DNA? Did Joni Mitchell pick up a guitar to expand her tribe’s social network?
They started because music is fun. Recall your first moments with an instrument. In fourth grade, Miss Neal, the Greenwood School music teacher, tempted me with a French horn. I liked it—the fat, wallowing sound that I forced out of it. I felt kind of cool. But, I was short (and short of breath.) The French horn was 2 feet wide, a foot and half high. In a test of breadth and brawn, the French horn would win.
However, everyone in my fourth grade in 1962 was given a tonette, a black plastic, end-blown flute with six finger holes. We all made cloth pouches and played the tonette in unison as a class. And, when it’s the only instrument you can play, it felt pretty cool.
In roughly 40,000 years, we have evolved: our ancient bone flute has grown from 4 holes to 6.
You can go online and hear a replica of the bone flute being played in a cave. The musician, wearing a white robe like something out of Spinal Tap, plays Ravel’s Bolero, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and imagined prehistoric melodies. (You can tell they are prehistoric because they are eerie and melancholy.)
We never picture our ancient ancestors as happy or having fun. It was all about survival, wooly mammoths and DNA transmission. We seem to believe that they never took a break to savor the ibex meat, see the beauty of the stars or roll off a few prehistoric knee slappers.
Music is here because we like it. Maybe it was there 40,000 years ago because our ancestors liked it.
There may be an evolutionary reason for music. But, consider this: there is no single area of the brain identified as the locus of music, as we have for reading or recognizing faces. Music engages the brain regions involved with internal reflection, esthetic judgments, rewards, motion, balance, spatial orientation, local blood flow, mucosal transport, secretions, immunity, empathy and emotional reasoning to name a few. Music engages almost the entire brain—whether it’s Bach, the Beatles or bone flutes.
Or as Sir Mick Jagger sang: “Ah, no, it’s only rock and roll, but I like it.”