Watch an Archaeologist Play the “Lithophone,” a Prehistoric Instrument That Let Ancient Musicians Play Real Classic Rock

Sure­ly each of us hears more music in a day than the aver­age pre­his­toric human being heard in a life­time. Then again, it depends on the def­i­n­i­tion of “music”: though what we lis­ten to is undoubt­ed­ly more com­plex than what our dis­tant ances­tors lis­tened to, our music descends from theirs just as we descend from them. And so it should­n’t come as too much of a sur­prise that the musi­cal instru­ments used in pre­his­toric times should sound vague­ly famil­iar to us. Take, for instance, archae­ol­o­gist and pre­his­toric music spe­cial­ist Jean-Loup Ringot’s per­for­mance on the semi­cir­cle of stones known as a litho­phone, or “rock gong.”

Litho­phones, wrote Josh Jones on the instru­men­t’s last appear­ance here on Open Cul­ture, “have been found all over the African con­ti­nent, in South Amer­i­ca, Aus­tralia, Azer­bai­jan, Eng­land, Hawaii, Ice­land, India, and every­where else pre­his­toric peo­ple lived. Not the cul­tur­al prop­er­ty of any one group, the rock gong came, rather, from a uni­ver­sal human insight into the nat­ur­al son­ic prop­er­ties of stone.”

A com­menter on the video of Ringot play­ing the litho­pone describes it as “rem­i­nis­cent of the bonang,” the col­lec­tion of small gongs set on strings that con­sti­tutes one of the defin­ing instru­ments of the tra­di­tion­al Javanese per­cus­sion ensem­ble known as game­lan.

Even if you’ve nev­er heard of game­lan or bonang, the sound of the litho­phone — and its resem­blance to that of instru­ments used in oth­er tra­di­tion­al musics — may well res­onate with you, so to speak. The main dif­fer­ence comes out of the mate­ri­als: the gongs, or ket­tles, of a bonang are made from bronze, iron, or mix­tures of oth­er met­als, while the litho­phone gen­er­ates sound with only what would have been avail­able to the Flint­stones. The use of such a nat­u­ral­ly abun­dant sub­stance has, of course, inspired many a mod­ern wag to Flintston­ian quips about litho­phone play­ers as the first “rock­ers.” Play­ers of the real clas­sic rock, in oth­er words — not like all the junk that has come out in the last few mil­len­nia. But then, don’t we all pre­fer the ear­ly stuff?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Mod­ern Drum­mer Plays a Rock Gong, a Per­cus­sion Instru­ment from Pre­his­toric Times

Hear a 9,000 Year Old Flute—the World’s Old­est Playable Instrument—Get Played Again

What Did Ancient Greek Music Sound Like?: Lis­ten to a Recon­struc­tion That’s ‘100% Accu­rate’

Vis­it an Online Col­lec­tion of 61,761 Musi­cal Instru­ments from Across the World

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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