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Murut Music of North Borneo - Timpun: Chant

Murut Music of North Borneo - Timpun: Chant

In the first decades of the twentieth century, the discipline of anthropology was highly influenced by theories of evolution. Inspired by evolutionary biologists and a general linear pattern of simple organisms gradually leading to more complex life forms, anthropologists believed cultures could be similarly arrayed from simple to complex. They ranked different societies on a scale of “civilization,” using certain cultural characteristics as points along the path of evolutionary progress. It was assumed that Western societies were the most advanced, and other societies could be ranked according to their similarity to Western cultural patterns. For instance, matrilineal societies were less evolved than Western patrilineal societies, and spiritual practices invoking multiple deities were less evolved than belief in a single god.

These principles were also applied to the study of ethnomusicology (then called comparative musicology). Musicologists measured communities’ “development” in relation to the Western world by comparing characteristics of their music to Western-style musical traditions. In doing so, they frequently deemed the music “primitive” or in an earlier “stage” of development. Characterizing non-Western communities as “primitive” stemmed from the idea that contemporary cultures that did not adhere to Western principles resembled an earlier evolutionary stage of cultural development. The underlying assumption was that cultural progress is linear, and that it always resulted in adopting some or all facets of Western culture.

The idea of cultural evolutionism has been discredited and has fallen out of use, but its underlying assumptions still persist in some areas of study.

For further reading on evolutionism in anthropology and ethnomusicology, see:

- Anna Kate Cannon, 2021–22 Dumbarton Oaks Fellow at SFR; Samantha Parton, SFR Intern 2022; Michael Pahn, Media Archivist at the National Museum of the American Indian; and Dr. Ed Liebow, Executive Director of the American Anthropological Association contributed to this statement.