Stone Age flutes found in Germany

Prehistoric people made musical instruments out of bone and ivory soon after reaching Europe

The hills may be alive with the sound of music, but so were vulture bones and mammoth tusks for ancient Europeans. Researchers working at two Stone Age German sites have unearthed a nearly complete flute made from a vulture’s forearm as well as sections of three mammoth-ivory flutes.

MUSIC MAKER A new report concludes that people living in Europe more than 35,000 years ago made this flute, shown from three different angles, out of a vulture bone. A magnified portion of the flute, top, provides a closer look at two of the flute’s finger holes. H. Jensen/U. of Tubingen

These 35,000- to 40,000-year-old finds are the oldest known musical instruments in the world, says archaeologist and project director Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen in Germany.

Bone flutes previously unearthed at Stone Age sites occupied by humans in France and Austria date to between 19,000 and 30,000 years ago. And many researchers now consider the spaced holes in a controversial 43,000-year-old find, dubbed a Neandertal bone flute in 1995, as the products of chewing by cave bears.

The bone flute, which excavators found in 12 pieces, and the ivory flutes were discovered in the summer of 2008 at Hohle Fels cave. The team reports in an upcoming Nature that the finds are from the time of the Aurignacian culture, when modern humans first migrated to Europe from Africa. Scientists estimate that the culture existed from about 40,000 to 29,000 years ago.

Conard’s group found no human bones near the ancient flutes. But since human remains accompany later Aurignacian finds at other sites, the scientists assume that Homo sapiens, not Neandertals, made the musical instruments.

“Our finds demonstrate the presence of a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans colonized Europe, more than 35,000 years ago,” Conard says.

Pieces of three other bone and ivory flutes, found earlier in another German cave, date to approximately 30,000 years ago, he notes.

In Conard’s view, musical practices and other cultural developments allowed Aurignacian people to establish social networks more extensive than any formed by Neandertals. Excavators found the Hohle Fels bone flute near a female figurine with exaggerated sexual features (SN: 6/20/09, p. 11). Some researchers, however, regard artifacts from this sediment layer as no more than 32,000 years old.

Conard’s age estimate for the newly discovered flutes appears reasonable, remarks archaeologist April Nowell of the University of Victoria in Canada. “The finger holes on the Hohle Fels bone flute are clearly human produced and are so different from the carnivore puncture holes on the Neandertal ‘flute,’” Nowell says.

The preserved portion of the bone flute is about 8.5 inches long and one-third of an inch wide. Finely incised lines near four finger holes probably indicated where to carve these openings using stone tools, Conard suggests. A partial fifth finger hole lacks such markings.

Musicians presumably blew into an end of the bone flute that contains two V-shaped notches. The researchers plan to make a replica of the ancient flute to investigate how it was played and what type of sounds it made.

Hohle Fels excavators also recovered two pieces from what were probably two ivory flutes, Conard says. Examination of material unearthed nearby, at Vogelherd Cave, identified part of another ivory flute.

Ivory flutes required especially complex construction techniques, Conard says. Flute makers carved a rough shape for the instrument along a piece of tusk, split the ivory open lengthwise, hollowed out the halves, carved finger holes and reattached the halves with an airtight seal.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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