Did early humans, or even animals invent music?

Music may have originated with animals, allowing our distant ancestors to communicate and build societies

Chimpanzee lead guitarists are thin on the ground. The stage at London’s Royal Albert Hall sees few lemur violin virtuosos. Conventional wisdom has it that music is a relatively modern human invention, and one that, while fun and rewarding, is a luxury rather than a basic necessity of life.

This appears to be borne out by the archaeological evidence. While the first hand axes and spears date back about 1.7 million years and 500,000 years respectively, the earliest known musical instruments are just 40,000 years old.

But dig a little deeper and the story becomes more interesting. While musical instruments appear to be a relatively recent innovation, music itself is almost certainly significantly older. Research suggests it may have allowed our distant ancestors to communicate before the invention of language, been linked to the establishment of monogamy and helped provide the social glue needed for the emergence of the first large early and pre-human societies. There is also emerging evidence that music might have even deeper origins: some monkeys can distinguish between sound patterns in ways similar to how humans can recognise slight differences between melodies.

A literal reading of the prehistory of music begins about 40,000 years ago, with Europe on the brink of a momentous change. The region was then home to the Neanderthals, who had inherited it from earlier human species stretching back a million years. But now a new species of human – our own – was racing across Europe. Homo sapiens were clever in a way that Neanderthals were not. Perhaps most importantly, they were armed with much more effective weapons. Within about 5,000 years our species had spread and multiplied so effectively that it may have outnumbered the Neanderthals 10 to one. Not long afterwards the Neanderthals vanished entirely.

The dramatic pace of this change suggests there were some fundamental differences between our species and the Neanderthals. The evidence on (and in) the ground strengthens the case. For instance, the Neanderthals sometimes lived in caves but for the most part didn’t bother to decorate them, although evidence published in September 2014 suggests they may have created some rudimentary, abstract art, etched into a wall of a cave in Gibraltar (see video on original article).

However when our species arrived cave walls became canvases for impressively ambitious paintings. Modern humans also began carving human figurines and animals out of bone and ivory shortly after they arrived in Europe. And, to go with their new fascination with the visual arts, they began making bone and ivory musical instruments.

“There is a clear musical tradition,” says Nicholas Conard at the University of Tübingen in Germany, who helped discover many of the best examples of these early instruments. “In southwest Germany we have eight flutes from three different sites.”

These artistic endeavours might at first glance seem irrelevant to our species’ remarkable success at the Neanderthals’ expense.

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