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Timeline: 40,000 BCE - A Musical Odyssey

This 40,000 year old bone flute was discovered in Germany. According to archeologists, 40,000 years ago Neanderthals began to disappear from the fossil record and Homo sapiens became the dominant species.
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This 40,000 year old bone flute was discovered in Germany. According to archeologists, 40,000 years ago Neanderthals began to disappear from the fossil record and Homo sapiens became the dominant species.

Music has shaped our history. It influences our current culture and inspires hope for the future. Join us as explore the many ways that music has changed the world.

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Do you remember the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? The director starts a movie about space by first showing us early humanity. We are introduced to two warring factions of hairy proto-humans yelling and grunting at one another over some unknown conflict. That night one of the tribes wakes up at sunrise to a strange, black, rectangular object. In the shadow of this monolith, one of the members of the tribe picks up a bone and examines it. After a moment, it begins to beat the ground with this first “tool.”

Then we are quickly taken to another conflict between the two warring tribes, only this time one of them is armed with bones; new tools which have now become weapons used to kill and to dominate. Standing victorious over a fallen foe, the original inventor throws the bone they were welding into the air and the director cuts from the shot of the flying bone to a satellite in orbit in space.

This is, of course, science fiction. But aside from the mysterious monolith, it’s not too farfetched to see how humanity has this predictable pattern; new technology turning into weaponry, tools of war. It’s been true from Paleolithic bones and clubs to atomic energy and weapons of mass destruction.

In an earlier episode of Timeline we talked about 40,000 year-old bone flutes discovered in Germany. According to archeologists, 40,000 years ago Neanderthals began to disappear from the fossil record and Homo sapiens (you and me) became the dominant species. This was a pivotal point in human evolution and music plays an important role. These bone flutes were not in this site by accident. We’ve discovered similar instruments nearby, some dated thousands of years apart. This tells us that musical instruments were common and that music was important to early society. You probably aren’t surprised by this. After all, music has the ability to touch our emotions on a deep personal level and also on a corporate level. Music is one of the tools that we use to define ourselves both as individuals and as groups.

This brings me back to the opening of Kubrick’s film 2001, where the first invention quickly became the first weapon. The archeologists that found the 40,000 year-old bone flutes believe that art and music aided the Homo sapiens in a “cultural arms race” with the Neanderthals. As we shared in song together we grew closer, more connected, allowing for the creation of society and culture. It’s no coincidence that the time period where we find the first musical instruments is the same one in which the population of humanity exploded. Just like in Kubrick’s film, music for early humanity became a weapon – well, we’ll say tool. Not one used to breakdown or destroy but one that binds and draws individuals into units allowing them to be stronger, together.

Explore how music changed the world and follow the Timeline.

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