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The drum has been used since ancient times for rituals and communication. Source: zolotareva_elina / Adobe Stock.

Primeval Communication and the Beat of the Drum


Human beings need complex communication, no matter if it's through speech or music. The invention of drums has become an essential factor in all musical forms of artistic expression. It is through humanities yearning for communication that musical instruments might have come to be.

We developed such tools to send our messages out into the world without knowing the cultural impact it would have on whoever was listening on the other side. Its deep and rhythmic distinction symbolized humanity’s multifaceted expressions, culture, and testaments.

As a human being, these messages say, "I am here!" to all who care to listen. Drums became the primary tool for keeping rhythm and synchronization for those who played and those who listened. However, in our earliest incarnations of this instrument, the drums might have served more practical functions that were necessary for our survival.

There have been cultures which have associated sexual symbolism to drums. Women have used them to endure their menstrual cycles. Men have even used them to mark the success of undergoing a circumcision.

Humanity's cultural development has owed its progress to the creation of such a powerful tool. So how could such a simple instrument have such a complex history?

Origins of the Drum

Humanity's oldest instrument was the human voice. However, from the great leap forward of our technological development, our desire for musical communication developed to include a wide array of tools. The earliest evidence for drumming though may have come from our other primate cousins.

Most of our earliest instruments were flutes made from the long and hollow bone shafts of birds, cave bears, and deer. But there were also drums made from the hides of elk, buffalo, and other ungulates. Though there continue to be discussions with most musical anthropologists as to which came first, the most passionate of instruments is surely the drum.

Neanderthals and Music

Paleoanthropological evidence has revealed that Homo sapiens ancient cousins, the Neanderthals in the Crimea may have used musical instruments for as long as 100,000 years. But after the controversy of the Divje Babe Neanderthal cave bear femur flute of Cerkno Slovenia, there is now extreme skepticism of any further potential evidence for musical instruments.

The Neanderthal cave bear femur flute of Cerkno Slovenia. (Magnus Manske / CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Neanderthal cave bear femur flute of Cerkno Slovenia. (Magnus Manske / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Like the case of the Neanderthal cave bear flute, what might be viewed as an instrument may turn out to be the chewed bone scraps from a wolf’s previous meal. However, regardless of the controversy, there is now a growing consensus that Neanderthals may have invented flutes and drums for ceremonial and cultural purposes.

Other musical instruments that may be associated with Neanderthals are antelope bone Saiga Phalange whistles which were found at Prolom II in Crimea dating between 90 to 100,000 years in age.

Though most of the instruments mentioned are of bone flutes and whistles, it is assumed that drums may have co-existed but long decayed due to the eons of the passing time. If this is true, then drums may have existed 100,000 years ago.

The origins of the drum may have originated from the stamped pit, which was a hole purposefully dug in the ground and covered with planks of wood. Individuals would jump up and down on the planks of wood to create a percussive sound resonating in the hollow space.

Music history scholars believe this might have created a soothing sound for those who listened to it. Evidence of these styles was found in the Solomon Islands, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Drums in Mesopotamia

In ancient Mesopotamia roughly in 3,000 to 2,000 BC, a region which contained a majority of modern-day Iraq, Mesopotamians were beginning to create purpose-made drums specifically designed to hold fixed skins. With the stratification of society came the division of labor and the emergence of professional musicians who specialized in specific instruments.

Mesopotamia drum from Ur, southern Mesopotamia, (Neuroforever / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Mesopotamia drum from Ur, southern Mesopotamia, (Neuroforever / CC BY-SA 4.0)

As the cradle of civilization grew, with their influence, music became more prevalent in social and religious ceremonies. Temples and palaces retained skilled musicians.

Ancient writings and depictions from 2,700 BC reveal that the most prevalent form of the drum was the frame drum. Other Mesopotamian art revealed pictures of people using a rectangular version known as an adapu which might have had metal jingles attached to it. A smaller and rounder version of the adapu was known as the mezu.

Archaeological evidence of these drums has been found buried with the skeletal remains of the social elites. These drums were dated to the 2nd century BC. Most of the drums found in the Mesopotamian regions were associated with religious functions. The Su-Ala, such as the stele of Ur-Nammu from 2,270 BC, was a drum consisting of a six-foot diameter covering suspended from a frame in front of a temple.

Other drums consisted of large bronze discs known as lilissu drums which Mesopotamian Kalu-priests would play during ritual ceremonies. Its large bronze shell was covered by the perfect hide from a black bull. During those times, the bull was an archetype which symbolized the power of kings and the secure symbolic connection about striking the bull hide drum symbolized the powerful relationship between humanity and the heavens.

Drums in Africa

Africa today holds some of the most diverse uses of drums in all the world. Almost every culture in the continent has had either a creation myth involving the drum or has used it for both ceremony and communication at some point in their cultural development. Though there are so many to mention ranging from the Northern African, Sub Saharan, eastern, southern, and western African groups, only the most popular cultural drums will be mentioned.

Drums from Africa. (Magnus Manske / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Drums from Africa. (Magnus Manske / CC BY-SA 2.0)

There are many African myths that exist in relation to the drum and the beginning of creation. Two of which are the myth of the Wakambi and the legend of the Mutwa.

Though there is little to no possible way of tracing a lineage to the creators of the drum, there is a Wakambi legend of Queen Marimba, the mother of the Wakambi tribe as well as the creator of the drum known as the ngoma. The legends of the Mutwa believe the origins of the drum came from turning over a nut-grinding mortar in order to create the first drum in the world. And when it was played, it shook the forests with a pulsing beat.

The oldest drums in existence come from Africa. Most of the differences and variation of drums are as diverse as the numerous cultures of Africa themselves.

Some of the more basic drums which exist can also be found in New Guinea, India, and Ethiopia which consist of two holes of differing depths, dug in the shape of a cone in the ground, with the opening slapped with the palm of the hand in order to make resonance in the cavity.

There are other tribes in Africa in which the percussionists pound stone pestles into stone troughs. With this drum design, there is strong sexual significance connected with the percussion instruments.

Bamileke tamtam drum. (Tatoute / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Bamileke tamtam drum. (Tatoute / CC BY-SA 3.0)

With the intambula instrument, from the Swazi tribe of South Africa, one man holds a taut skin over a clay pot while another man beats the stretched skin with a stick.

In East Africa the drumstick was considered a phallic symbol and the drum shell was considered female genitals. The connotation is the division of gender within the music traditions allowing only men to play the drum due to the masculine association of beating a drum.

The multicultural aspect to drumming, especially in Africa, is paramount to every facet of social life. The rhythms of the drums were believed to contain the power, divinity, and even the sexual powers of gender.

These tools were considered spiritually powerful and were used in religious practices, as seen with other ancient cultures around the world, as well as in medical healing rituals. But one of the most remarkable things that drums were used for was for long-range communication.

African Communication Through Drum Languages

One documented case in 1947 from the Bete tribe discussed a French tax collector who shot a drummer after realizing he had warned surrounding villages of the collector’s imminent arrival. To avoid paying taxes, the men who had understood the drummed message had fled the village.

The Bantu people, as well as the Yoruba people, of Nigeria and Benin created methods of drum communication through the use of an hourglass double-headed drum known as the “talking drum” which has the ability to change pitch, tone, and tension in order to provide differing tones which can be interpreted by anyone who knows the language. A reason for this type of drum is because the languages of the Yorba and Bantu are very tonal in which a single word could have several meanings depending on the pitch, tone, and slur in which it is uttered.

Yoruba drummers at celebration in Ojumo Oro. (Marin H. / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Yoruba drummers at celebration in Ojumo Oro. (Marin H. / CC BY-SA 2.0)

With the abilities of their drums to match the tone and slurs, they can give full sentences with a few beats of the drum. Another region of Africa where drum language was essential was in Central Africa. Using drums for communication allowed people to communicate over very long distances of thick brush and jungle.

Drum Languages and Slavery

Some of the darker history surrounding the use of drums was on slave ships heading from West Africa to Virginia in the 1730s.

These drums were used in part of an exercise regime in order to keep the incarcerated slaves fit enough to survive. However, this would not be enough, since, for most of the trip, slaves would be stacked like crates below deck for long stretches, lasting weeks.

Unfortunately, on most slave ships heading to the New World back then, a mere 20% would survive the voyage, only to be sold.

The unfortunate slaves from Nigeria and Ghana used drum communication in the Americas and the Caribbean in order to communicate with other plantations. Due to the secret codes used, all drums were banned, fearing potential slave uprisings.

Drums in Asia

Though Africa showed immense diversity with their drum cultures, other regions of the world also utilized the power of the drums. Most uses in areas of Asia were primarily for religious and ceremonial purposes. Various Neolithic cultures in China from 5,500 – 2,350 BC constructed drums from alligator skins.

The first drums were of the fundamental design, consisting of a drumhead membrane stretched over a shell. The intention was for the membrane to be struck by either a hand or a dull-edged stick in order to produce a resonance of sound. Depending on the size of the drum and membrane, this resonance could carry sound over a vast distance.

Other drums, such as the Dong Son Drum, were fabricated during the Bronze Age Don Son culture around 1,000 BC. This drum was accidentally discovered in 1893 in Ha Nam Province of southeast Hanoi.

Dong Son drum. (Grenouille vert / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Dong Son drum. (Grenouille vert / CC BY-SA 3.0)

It was unexpectedly found by laborers who were building a dike. The Ngoc Lu drum is considered one of the most precious artifacts to come out of the Dong Sun Culture of Vietnam.

Ceremonial drums also existed in the dawn of Hinduism known as the Bhumi Dundubhi, translating to Earth Drum, which was large pits covered in ox hide. The skins were nailed to the earth around it and a stick, or tail, was used to beat on it.

In ancient Japan, drums such as the O-bon were used in Buddhist religious ceremonies in order to welcome dead spirits back to the land of the living. This tradition was believed to have originated from China over 1,400 years ago.

Further development in Japan led to, the Taiko drums. These instruments appeared in villages across Japan with the sole purpose of being used by spiritual healers in order to dispel spirits and drive insects from rice fields.

Drums and Our Need to Communicate

Though there are hundreds more examples of cultures using drums in both ceremony and communication, the diversity of drum use that is found in Africa carries a robust amount of techniques which are still used today. The innovation of the drum has inspired almost 100,000 years of language and cultural development for humanity.

Diversity of African drums. (Needpix / Public Domain)

Diversity of African drums. (Needpix / Public Domain)

With the adaptation of drum languages in Central Africa in order for groups to communicate through thick brush, it makes one wonder about the efforts put forth with interstellar communication. Even now, humanity sends signals and frequencies into space in the hopes of reaching others outside among the stars, hoping to hear any frequencies coming back. In some instinctual ways, humanity is hoping for communication, even if it is potentially with beings outside of our world.

Top image: The drum has been used since ancient times for rituals and communication. Source: zolotareva_elina / Adobe Stock.

By B.B. Wagner


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B. B. Wagner's picture

B. B.

B.B. Wagner is currently working on a master’s degree in Anthropology with a focus in Pre-contact America. Wagner is a storyteller, a sword fighter, and a fan of humanity’s past. He is also knowledgeable about topics on Ice Age America... Read More

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