Early Stones

The Media Wonk was away from this post recently while pursuing actual paid employment. But now that that’s behind me, it’s time to clear out the folder of stuff-I-meant-to-get-to-when-I-have-the-time. Here’s one item:

Last month, a group of archaeologists announced the discovery, made last fall, of a 35-40,000 year old, five-hole flute made from a vulture bone, along with  fragments of two ivory flutes in a cave in southern Germany. The find pushed back the date for the earliest confirmed evidence of instrumental music-making by humans by at least 5,000 years.

stone-venusAs it happens, the instruments were discovered a few feet away from where a carved figurine of a nude, and extremely busty woman was previously found, and which was also about 5,000 years older than the earliest known stone venus.

What can these finds tell us about music today? For one thing, they tell that as far back as 40,000 years ago, guys were already thinking about girls and making music–more or less the same instinct we see at work today when a guy takes up the guitar and starts a band. Music, in other words, has been an integral and consistent aspect of human society and culture for as long as we can see evidence of human society and culture.

The difference is that for the first 39,900 years of that span, people made music despite having no hope of landing a record contract. They just did it: to have something to dance to, as part of religious ceremonies, to get girls, or simply for the shared experience of making and listening to it. It’s only in the last 100 years or so, since the invention of mechanical recording, that those things have become heavily commercialized, and that making music and listening to it became distinct activities mediated by record companies.

So the next time you hear a record company executive warn that the loss of profits from recordings threatens to stop the music and impoverish the culture, it’s worth remembering that nearly 40,000 years of cultural history suggests the groove is a little deeper than that.