The Evolution of Human Dance: Courtship, Rites of Passage, Trance, Calendrical Ceremonies and the Professional Dancer

  • Yosef Garfinkel
  • Cambridge Archaeological Journal, February 2018, Cambridge University Press
  • DOI: 10.1017/s0959774317000865

The Evolution of Human Dance

What is it about?

A model of five major chronological phases is suggested for the history of human dance. These phases did not replace one another, but accumulated as successive layers. The earliest phase is associated with courtship, thus explaining the potent role of dance in sexual desire and seduction. The second phase is associated with the appearance of modern human behaviour and the earliest burials, which were rites of passage that involved the first communal dances. The third phase is associated with the appearance of hybrid human-animal figurines that point to altered states of consciousness and aspirations to change reality; this is when trance dance, shamanism, magic and religion came in. The fourth phase is connected with the beginning of agriculture in Neolithic villages, which was coordinated by elaborate calendrical ceremonies. The fifth and final phase is associated with urban societies, economic complexity and specialization; well-trained professional dancers now performed acrobatic body movements and elaborate choreography for the enjoyment of others. The history of dance thus reflects the history of human rituals and religion.

Why is it important?

This is the first research to propuse stages in the evolution of human dance. Scholars have dealt with the contribution of dance to human evolution, but none has proposed a model of the evolution of dance itself: that is, how dance has changed over time in accordance with the main changes in human organization from hunter–gatherer bands through farming communities to urban societies.


Yosef Garfinkel
Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Studies on early dance usually went back in time to the cultures of the ancient Near East, to Egypt and Mesopotamia. My research on dance in the last 20 years enlarge the early history to the Neolithic period (Dance at the Dawn of Agriculture, 2003), then to the Upper Paleolithic (Dance in prehistoric Europe, 2010), and now to the beginning of early modern humans. In addition the article suggests that the earlier human burials at c. 100,000 years ago should be used as indication to the beginning of Rites of Passage, and that the seashells associate with these burial sites were used as rattles, and thus the earlier musical instruments.

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