By 17,000 years ago, with Neanderthals having long since died out, Homo sapiens had triumphed as the only surviving species of the human family tree, and their dominion over the Earth was truly beginning. But their manipulation of the world around them began not with farming, which came some 5,000 years later, but with art.
This strange world of prehistoric sights and sounds has been brought to life by the project Songs of the Caves, which brought together academics from Britain and Spain to investigate the archaeo-acoustics of five painted caves in northern Spain. In doing so, the project began to give some idea of what Prehistoric music may have actually sounded like. Using reconstructions of the Hohle Fels flute and a vulture bone flute from Isturitz, as well as cow horns, drums, a bullroarer (a flat piece of antler, swung by a cord to create a humming sound), and the human voice, they powerfully evoked the soundscapes that Paleolithic man may have created, recapturing an ephemeral artform that is easily lost and forgotten in the face of vivid and iconic cave art.
Rupert Till, professor of music at the University of Huddersfield, led the Songs of the Caves project. He got a step closer to the reality of sound for early man when he recorded the replica Isturitz flute being played in the very cave it was found in. The recordings were used on Till’s Dub Archaeology – an attempt at ‘sonic time travel’, he says – taking Leftfield’s Leftism and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon as key influences.
Reverie situated those recordings in ‘a wash of electronic sounds’, while the single Isturitz used a recording of the flute made in another cave over a chill-out track, giving it a world music feel. Egyptian musician Mina Salama, performer on Isturitz, is a player of the ney – a long, open-ended flute from the Middle East of 5,000 years provenance – and was instantly able to play the tens of thousands of years old flute, suggesting the universal nature of basic music technology. In melding the very ancient and the very modern, Till has created music that forces us to think about the common characteristics that make us human.
Till was also instrumental in the production of a series of CDs released by the European Music Archaeology Project (EMAP), an international project supported by the Culture Programme of the European Commission, which sought to trace the sounds of Prehistory through to traditions which still survive today. Volume Four, titled The Edge Of Time, featured reconstructions of flutes from Geißenklösterle, Hohle Fels, and Isturitz being played by flautist Anna Friederike Potengowski, with accompaniment from percussionist Georg Wieland Wagner, to explore “the eternal musical truth of breath on bone”. The results are often mournful, and incredibly haunting.
David Attenborough’s recently-released two-CD set My Field Recordings from Across the Planet includes bone flutes being played by indigenous peoples in South America only half a century ago. In this we see – or rather hear – a collapse of time, the gap between us and Paleolithic people narrowing dramatically.
Ultimately, whether used for leisure, work or worship, music was a means of social cohesion for early man, and the EMAP project put the emphasis on finding ‘sound-evidence’ of Europe’s ancient common roots where “musical instruments played a key role in creating a network of interconnections, cross-references and shared features among the various European cultures”.
Music binds us to our neighbours and, as such, it is a means of survival. But above all, prehistoric instruments movingly remind us that whether over tens of thousands of years ago or today, music is so often how we keep the darkness at bay.