Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What Were the Legacies of Stone Age Prehistoric Celebration?

Although we cannot point precisely to the Rhino Cave rituals, we can be fairly certain that our Stone Age ancestors left a couple of legacies that would have enormous impact on human celebration in the future. The first one was the use of music. The second one was the use of a separate or "sacred" space for celebration. In this and the next one or two posts, I will talk about the legacy of music. I'll save sacred space for later.

With respect to the anthropological aspect of the Rhino Cave celebration, there is a dilemma that is the subject of considerable research and debate. The essence of the dilemma is determining exactly when and how our ancestors progressed from occupying themselves in the evenings with quiet fireside chats to putting on ceremonies full of symbolism, ritual, music, and dancing. In other words, when did true performance enter the evolutionary picture? And of course, could music and dancing really have been part of the fictitious cave ceremony 70,000 years ago? If it could, then this would also be one of the main historical legacies of the event.

It has been shown recently by scientists known as biogenetic structuralists that highly performance-driven ritual activities should be the most effective in conveying messages. Here is what happens. When humans hear the rhythm in music—or create rhythm in some form (e.g., clapping, beating sticks or rocks, drumming, etc)—a process known as entrainment takes place. This process essentially couples body rhythms to the beat. In other words, pulse rate, brain wave patterns, diastolic blood pressure, skin temperature, and other functions are altered so they align with the rhythm produced. Furthermore, if the resulting experience is positive—as it typically is if highly rhythmic music is played—then the brain may also release a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that is associated with the pleasure system of the brain and enhances feelings of enjoyment (sex and drugs usually cause it to be released too!). To put it simply, rhythmic music can be addictive—and humans crave it.

Given this, what now needs to be determined is how and when music and dance first appeared. The main question that so far has no definitive answer is whether there is an innate cognitive music module or processing mechanism within the brain that was there in our pre-human ancestors, or whether other basics of cognition have been adapted along the way to give us a propensity to enjoy music and dance. This concept of characteristics arising in one context before being used in another is known as exaptation. The question, though, is chicken-and-egg: did evolution cause music or did music cause evolution. But perhaps that’s being facetiously simplistic, because it appears to be more complicated and a little of both. It involves two primary aspects of music: melody and rhythm. How these came to be part of human capabilities is also dependent on physiological and neurological evolution. More in my next post.


  • Alcorta, C.S. and Sosis, R. (2005). Ritual, Emotion, and Sacred Symbols: The Evolution of Religion as an Adaptive Complex. Human Nature, Winter 2005, Vol.16, No.4. pp. 323-359.
  • Goldman, Jonathan S. (2000). Sonic Entrainment. In Don Campbell (Ed) Music: Physician for Times to Come. Wheaton: The Theosophical Publishing House. pp. 217-233.
  • Guthrie, C. (2000). Neurology, Ritual, and Religion: An Initial Exploration. Retrieved August 1, 2008, from


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