Musicking and human development
Professor Sarah Wurz
Thu, 06/06/2024 - 09:45

The Divje Babe Flute. Dated from approximately 50 000 years ago. Source: The Divje Babe Archaeological Park website.

Steeped as it is in the tangible, visual aspects of material culture, archaeology does not often give full consideration to other expressions of social life in the past, such as music and dance. The origin of musicality and musical expression has been a long-standing field of research for Professor Wurz, who teaches in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies at Wits University. As a former high school music teacher, she brings a perfect marriage of interests to the study of the subject.
Professor Wurz started by unpacking for us the unfamiliar concept of ‘musicking’. It envisions music as a deliberate action that combines the sounds generated through rhythmical movement of the body, such as those made by hands and feet during dancing, with those of learned vocalisations. In this sense, music involves the whole body as a synchronic mechanism.

In her talk, Professor Wurz argued that musical expression is a form of behaviour that underlies typically human cognition and ways of being, and sets us apart from other animals. The ability to entrain bodily movements to a rhythm must have originated as a biocultural co-evolutionary process early in the development of the hominin lineage. Professor Wurz led us through the incremental developments in our evolutionary history that may have been responsible for the eventual attainment of musicality in our species. Starting at about 3 million years ago with A. afarensis, she discussed how habitual bipedalism, coupled with protracted brain growth, would have led to greater infant dependency, which in turn would have stimulated the development of ‘motherese’.
For those unfamiliar with psycholinguistics, motherese is the simplified and repetitive type of speech, with exaggerated intonation and rhythm, that parents, particularly mothers, develop when talking to their infants. Motherese helps infants entrain to their parents, and is the first step towards the development of the type of rhythmic movement that would enable dance. 

Whereas the anatomy of A. afarensis did not allow for dance, by 1.9 million years ago Homo ergaster had emerged on the landscape with more human-like anatomy. Specifically, this species had a more barrel-shaped chest that would have facilitated greater resonance of sound and control of breath. Similarly, the foot had evolved to allow quicker movement over greater distances, and the inner ear structure had developed to improve balance and co-ordination. By 1.5 million years ago, Professor Wurz posits, hominins would have been at least anatomically capable of refined dance movements. Although there is still no evidence at this time that hominins could produce sounds exactly as we do today, the increase in brain size points to more evolved social structures, within which more sophisticated forms of linguistic communication could have developed.

It is likely that laughter also emerged at this time as a form of communication through sound to replace the social grooming evinced by other primates. Laughter, like grooming, releases endorphins that can effectively mitigate stress. 
By 600 000 years ago, Homo heidelbergensis, with its larger brain and increased group sizes, would likely have developed a form of verbal communication, similar though less developed to what we would recognise today as syntactic speech. By this time (250 000 years before the earliest evidence of the emergence of H. sapiens), hominins would have had an anatomy fully capable of rhythmic, co-ordinated and entrained movements, as well as aural and vocal abilities to produce musical sounds. 
Artefactual evidence of musical instruments is exceptionally rare in the archaeological record. The earliest putative example dates to 50 000 years ago and comes from Divje Babe I in Slovenia. But the capacity for music must necessarily have preceded the first musical instrument by some margin. Professor Wurz showed how this capacity could be traced back through incremental anatomical, cognitive and social developments in the course of hominin evolution. Musicking may therefore not be unique to our species, but may have been present to some extent in ancestral lineages.