Evidence of ancient roots

Though early hominids may have made sweet sounds by banging sticks and stones together, the oldest distinguishable instrument dates to 40,000 years ago. 

A flute made from vulture bone (shown) and others made from mammoth ivory have been found in Hohle Fels cave near Ulm, Germany, and date from 35,000 to 40,000 years ago. Holes in other bones dating to about 43,000 years ago were dismissed as bite marks from cave bears.

Gudi, literally “bone flutes,” found in Jiahu in Henan Province, China, date to 9,000 years ago. Made from the wing bones of red-crowned cranes, the early instruments possess five to eight finger holes.

Pieces of several harps found in 1929 by Leonard Woolley in what was ancient Mesopotamia date back to almost 5,000 years ago. The most famous was the bull-headed lyre (replica shown), which had been preserved in a Baghdad museum until it was looted in 2003.

Two marble statues dating from 4,700 to 4,500 years ago depict a double flute player (shown) and a harpist. Found on the island of Keros, near Crete, the statues’ purpose is unclear.

Six graded cylindrical wooden pipes discovered south of Dublin date to 4,000 years ago. The pipes, the largest of which is 50 centimeters long, lack holes and appear as if they were attached together as part of a larger instrument.

A cuneiform tablet dating to 4,000 years ago from Nippur, an ancient Sumerian city, includes instructions for performing music on string instruments and suggests people had a sophisticated idea of octaves more than 4,000 years ago.

The tomb of Ramses III, who ruled Egypt more than 3,000 years ago, contains a bas-relief including two blind musicians playing before the gods. Discovered in 1768 by James Bruce, the tomb was dubbed “The Tomb of the Harpists” and is sometimes called “Bruce’s tomb.”

Bronze carnyces found buried beneath a temple in Corrèze, France, date to more than 2,000 years ago. The carnyx was a Celtic battle horn (two replicas shown), sometimes with a boar’s head at its top.

From top: N. Conrad, et al/Nature 2009; Silvio Fiore/Getty Images; Gianni Dagli Orti/CORBIS; Wolfgang Sauber/Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Quill is former executive editor of Science News. She's now a freelance editor based in Washington, D.C.