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It is not known when people began to dance; however, because expressive movement is so spontaneous, because dance is almost universal, and because it is so intimately interrelated with other aspects of a culture, it is possible that dance developed along with the evolution of our species. Many animals perform dance-like movements in situations similar to human courtship and play. These movement rituals, however, lack the conscious use of symbols that is present in human dance.

Prehistoric cave paintings from more than 20,000 years ago depict figures in animal costumes who seem to be dancing, possibly in hunting or fertility rituals, or perhaps merely for education or entertainment. Because all cultural groups are continually changing, no societies survive today who are like Paleolithic or Stone Age peoples or who dance as they may have danced. A few cultures that exist today, however, have had little or no direct contact with industrialized societies. At times their dances may look simple to an outsider, but often they are not. Usually they form part of complicated rituals that involve highly sophisticated religious or philosophical ideas. Furthermore, because most of the dances are for participation, they must be easy to learn. Such societies may also possess presentational dances. Among Australian aboriginals and African Khoi-san peoples, for example, skilled individuals perform mime and acrobatic dances to entertain and instruct.