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What was the first drum instrument? Was it wood or stone? Maybe there is an answer out there, but all I found were mere discussions.

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    I feel like you're going to need a time machine to answer that one. Can I borrow it when you're done?
    – endorph
    Dec 27, 2016 at 22:10
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    It might be hard to get a concrete answer for this, but I'm sure there must be research on this and someone who could summarize the state of our knowledge about early drum-like instruments.
    – user28
    Dec 27, 2016 at 22:12
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    Might come down to terminology - is hitting a stone comparable to hitting a hollow log? And is that comparable to a hide stretched over a frame? Which counts as a drum?
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Dec 27, 2016 at 22:20
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    Your problem is that this would have been well before any form of written history...
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Dec 27, 2016 at 23:05
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    I'm thinking the first drum was the human chest.... :P Dec 27, 2016 at 23:40

5 Answers 5

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I don't think we can know exactly. There are no records of something that far back. Then again, which part of the world are you talking about? There were probably a few different versions of the drum invented at about the same time, and they were probably made from different materials. And also,what can you call a 'drum'? Do two pieces of stone, not shaped in any special way, count as an instrument? The first drum that had any special acoustic shape was probably made of wood, since it's easier to carve. But the very basic drum- two pieces of something- might have been stone, too.

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Taking "drum" to mean "percussion instrument" where that instrument was used for a clearly musical purpose...

(Among) The first known "drums", alongside perhaps wood and stone, were bone instruments. Percussion instruments of this sort have been dated as early as 70,000 BCE according to "A Brief History of Drums".1

Among the earliest known examples of percussion instruments are idiophones made from mammoth bones found in present-day Belgium. These instruments are thought to date from 70,000 B.C.[E.]

The article goes on to describe the precursors to modern drums.

The kinds of drums used by today's drummers have precursors in the musical instruments of ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt. These cultures used frame drums -- drum heads stretched over a shallow wooden frame.

This would suggest (very loosely) sometime in the realm of 4000 BCE (give or take a millenium).

The Wikipedia article "Music of India" suggests "rock drums" emerging somewhere between 20,000 and 4000 years ago.

Mesolithic and chalcolithic cave art of Bhimbhetka illustrates very simple musical instruments such as rock drums, and other simple instruments.


1 The reference here is perhaps dubious. The claim of a Paleolithic mammoth-bone idiophone in Belgium seems to come from a 1990 paper by Dirk Huyge, "Mousterian Skiffle? Note on a Middle Palaeolithic engraved bone from Schulen, Belgium". The paper and its claim are discussed in Ian Morley's doctoral dissertation (Cambridge University, 2003, page 44). The bone in question dates from 40k-50k years ago — so, not 70,000 — and its use as an instrument (a rasp, or "scraped idiophone") is debated. Morley seems to come down in favor. The same discussion can be found in Morley's book, The Prehistory of Music: Human Evolution, Archaeology, and the Origins of Musicality, on page 110.

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  • Is anyone able to provide a better source for these 70,000-year-old "idiophones made from mammoth bones"? The linked website quotes no sources, and I'm unable to find anything further about these instruments. It also seems to be contradicted by this article in the National Geographic, which says the oldest instrument is a 40,000-year-old flute.
    – richard
    Sep 26, 2021 at 23:08
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    @richard I've updated my answer with an explanatory footnote. No comment on the NG article, which I'm unable to access.
    – Aaron
    Sep 27, 2021 at 0:48
  • I'm very grateful. Thank you very much for that.
    – richard
    Sep 27, 2021 at 12:48
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The first 'official drum' was from medieval Europe and was called a Tabor. However in Asia they were using percussion already, aboriginals in Australia were using rhythm sticks for thousands of years and people in Africa had been using percussion and instruments which would evolve into Djembe's. Who knows maybe even neanderthal man hit some sticks against a rock thousands upon thousands of years ago.

The simple answer is that it was most likely some sort of animal skin stretched over hollow wood. There is no definite answer.

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It's all discussion, because it will all be speculation.

Consider the possibility that the human body, in the form of clapping, stomping, etc. - was the first percussion instrument. How could you have archeological evidence of that? How could the first hand clap be preserved or dated?

But the real problem is the assumption in the question. Not that it is bad question, it's just problematic. It misses the historical development aspect. It's possible that percussion sounds were first used for communication or work rather than music.

Something like tapping a spear shaft against a tree branch could have been a hunting signal. Different tapping patterns could send different messages. At what point might those tapping patterns been used outside the context of hunting? Perhaps for telling and retelling the story of a hunt. At what point is it taken far enough out of the original context into a new context that could be considered music? Do you even need a "musical" context to call the sound making artifacts "instruments?"

The problem is a prehistoric human very likely did not in one discrete moment invent a wood or stone drum.

And again, everything I just wrote is pure speculation.

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    I keep being reminded of the fact that quite a few animals drum too, whether on the ground or on trees or logs. Maybe "the drum" predates humans? Sep 27, 2021 at 14:16
  • Indeed, the distinction between spear-tapping signals and musical percussion points toward the question of the origins of music itself. The observation that nonmusical percussion may have preceded musical percussion is fascinating. It's even plausible that stretched-skin drums were invented for nonmusical communication by pre-musical humans. Is a nonmusical percussive device a drum for the purpose of this question? I suppose that studies of the brain may someday elucidate the development of music, but we're not likely to determine how or when percussion instruments were first made.
    – phoog
    Sep 29, 2021 at 12:04
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While hollow sticks can resonate, the simplest true drum is an animal hide stretched over a hole in the ground. These "ground drums" may not be the oldest drums - there is no evidence - but they would be my guess as the oldest.

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  • Is there evidence that ground drums actually exist? I've never come across them.
    – phoog
    Sep 29, 2021 at 12:05
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    I came across them first in "Music Instruments through the Ages" by Anthony Baines, pub 1982 by Penguin (as a Pelican Book). They are mentioned in the Britannica article on percussion instruments - see britannica.com/art/ground-drum
    – Peter
    Sep 30, 2021 at 23:08

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