Music Helped Connect Hunter-Gatherer Groups in Central Africa

How did music shape language? For hunter-gatherers in Central Africa, music may have worked as a social network.

By Paul Smaglik
May 29, 2024 8:30 PMMay 29, 2024 8:32 PM
Drumming Hunter-Gatherers
Bayaka hunter-gatherers in Congo playing musical instruments and dancing, which helps them to spread cultural traits and specialized vocabulary between different groups. (Credit: Rodolph Schlaepfer, University of Zurich)


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Social networks existed long before Facebook, LinkedIn, or Instagram. But how they formed in ancient times has sometimes stymied scientists. Now, a study in Nature Human Behaviour demonstrates that music played an important role in connecting different hunter-gatherer groups in Central Africa.

Central Africa provides a rich trove of history for anthropologists to plumb. Hunter-gatherers have lived there for hundreds of thousands of years. But finding the cultural connectivity that has developed between communities over that time period is challenging, in part because modernization sometimes squelches older ties.

How Hunter-Gatherers Learned Language

For instance, scientists suspect that hunter-gathers in the Congo Basin absorbed languages from their farming neighbors, the Bantu. As a result, it’s difficult to tease apart aspects of culture formed from those fairly recent agricultural interactions versus ties from long-term meetings among communities spread throughout the region.

To do just that, a team led by Andrea Migliano from the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Zurich (UZH), gathered genetic data from 10 Central African hunter-gatherer groups. Then they divided that DNA into segments based on genetic time signatures. Those segments included the periods before, during, and after they encountered the Bantu.

The team gathered a list of names each group used for musical instruments and foraging tools. They then compared how those names matched up between different groups over time. That’s how they learned that the language of music has deeper historical ties among communities than does words associated with foraging.

“This suggests that genetic and cultural exchanges between hunter-gatherer groups are ancient and have remained mostly unaffected after recent farming expansions, pointing to a deep history of hunter-gatherer networks and uninterrupted cultural interconnectivity across the Congo Basin,” the paper says.

Read More: What Is a Nomad, and Are There Any Nomadic Tribes That Still Exist?

Ancient Musical Ties

The authors were surprised at the strength of those musical ties over time.

“Although the different Central African hunter-gatherer groups speak languages from very different families, they share a disproportionate number of words related to music,” Migliano said in a press release. “Therefore, these words can be traced back to a time before the hunter-gatherer populations adopted the languages of their Bantu neighbors.”

The words for foraging tools didn’t have a strong cultural connection. Instead, their names were shared among people from similar environments. In contrast, names for some musical instruments were similar even though they came from people separated by hundreds of miles.

“The large-scale cultural networking of modern humans has deep roots in the past, at least in Central Africa,” Migliano said in a statement.

Read More: Where Did Music Come From? Here Are the Leading Theories

Article Sources

Our writers at use peer-reviewed studies and high-quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article:

Before joining Discover Magazine, Paul spent over 20 years as a science journalist, specializing in U.S. life science policy and global scientific career issues. He began his career in newspapers, but switched to scientific magazines. His work has appeared in publications including Science News, Science, Nature, and Scientific American.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.