Alligator drum: a ceremonial percussion instrument from Neolithic China

chinese dragon with an alligator drum
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Mario Friscia

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Alligator drum: archaeological and literary evidence

The alligator drum is the oldest drum that we have archaeological evidence of.

It comes from the neolithic cultures of China and dates back to a period that goes from 5.500 to 2350 BC.

We can find references to this particular kind of drum in the Shijing, the “Book of songs”, a collection of verses dating from the 11th to 7th centuries BC.

As per Chinese literary records, the alligator drum was used within religious ceremonies in connection with shamanistic rituals and was made of clay with alligator hides stretched over it.

The earliest examples of these drums were made of a wooden frame covered with an alligator skin and were discovered in the archaeological sites at Dawenkou and Longshan, two cutural areas located in the region of Shandong.


Mythology and Symbolism

Some scholars have hypothesized that the Chinese alligator might have been the inspiration for the Chinese dragon, a highly beneficent mythological creature.

In today’s China the dragon is still considered as a positive symbol, connected to the concepts of power, good luck and rescue.

Both the alligator and the dragon are traditionally described as having a peaceful nature.

In addition to that, the Chinese dragon is able to swim and can live into the water such as the alligator.

Getting back to music and drumming, it is possible that alligator drums were employed by shamans and ritual experts to imitate the alligator’s vocalizations produced during the mating season.

Why did they focus on these particular sounds?

Because these vocalizations were associated with the dragon’s “power of summoning rain clouds” (Courtney, 2018).

As a result, by playing the alligator drum the shaman could take the place of the dragon and invoke rain on its behalf.


Alligator drums in today’s world

The idea of choosing an alligator skin as a membrane for a drum probably derived also from the fact that alligators were abundant in the east costs of China at the time.

Unfortunately, I can’t show you the shape of an ancient alligator drum since we don’t have access to any photos of the original archaeological remains.

However, surfing the web I’ve found some craftsmen specialized in making their own alligator drums, probably inspired by the old percussion instruments from China.

John Walker, for instance, builds a type of alligator hide drum which himself defines as: “Thin and strong, produces a sharp and crisp sound that is unsurpassed by the other leathers”.


Suggested readings

Bo Lawergren. Neolithic drums in China. Orient-Archaologie Band 20 Ellen Hickmannl Arnd Adje Both/ Ricardo Eichmann (Hrsg.) Studien zur Musikarchaologie V
Liu, Li (2007). The Chinese Neolithic: Trajectories to Early States. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sterckx, Roel (2002). The Animal and the Daemon in Early China. New York: State University of New York Press
Porter, Deborah Lynn (1996). From Deluge to Discourse: Myth, History, and the Generation of Chinese Fiction. New York: State University of New York Press.
Thorbjarnarson, John; Wang, Xiaoming (May 17, 2010). The Chinese Alligator: Ecology, Behavior, Conservation, and Culture. Johns Hopkins University Press
Courtney, Chris (February 15, 2018). The Nature of Disaster in China: The 1931 Yangzi River Flood. Cambridge University Press.




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Mario Friscia

Anthropologist of sound
music teacher

“Open your doorway to music cultures and listen to the world with gentler ears”

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