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Stone Age jams: Humans playing the flute for at least 35,000 years, no word yet on sax

oldest musical instrumentCarved flutes dating back some 35,000 years were discovered during a dig last summer at an upper Paleolithic site in southwestern Germany, making them among—if not the—oldest documented musical instruments, reports a study published today in Nature (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group).

These flutes, from the early Aurignacian period, show that there was "a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans colonized Europe," write the study authors from the University of Tübingen. The most complete, five-holed flute is made of bone from griffon vultures and is about 8.6 inches (21.8 centimeters) long. Other flute fragments are ivory.

Precise dating of objects older than 30,000 years has been problematic, and although radiocarbon dating has pegged the flutes to at least 35,000 years ago, their placement in the sediment layers in the Hohle Fels Cave suggest that they might be 40,000 years old.

The authors and other scholars assert that "the existence of complex musical instruments [is] an indication of fully modern behavior and advanced symbolic communication," which would strengthen the argument that these early Europeans were already relatively culturally advanced. In fact, the bone flute was found just 28 inches (70 centimeters) away from a Venus figurine carved from mammoth ivory, reported earlier this year, which suggests that, "the inhabitants of the sites played these musical instruments in diverse and cultural contexts."

Ancient humans may not have been the only ones piping Paleolithic tunes, however. In the 1990s, researchers uncovered bones in Slovenia that could have been Neandertal flutes. Subsequent analysis, however, showed that the holes might have been made by a gnawing animal instead.

Modern day flautists (and the rest of us) may have to wait before tunes of the past are blowing their way. "We have not yet been able to produce a replica of the flute," the authors write. However, they expect it "to provide a…range of notes and musical possibilities."


Image of the bone flute courtesy of H. Jensen, University of Tubingen

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