A Vulture-Bone Flute For Primordial Music

Nicholas J. Conard of the University of Tübingen, in Germany, showed a thin bird-bone flute carved some 35,000 years ago. [Photo by Daniel Maurer/AP/NYT]
Nicholas J. Conard of the University of Tübingen, in Germany, showed a thin bird-bone flute carved some 35,000 years ago. [Photo by Daniel Maurer/AP/NYT]

John Wilford Noble writes in NYT:

At least 35,000 years ago, in the depths of the last ice age, the sound of music filled a cave in what is now southwestern Germany, the same place and time early Homo sapiens were also carving the oldest known examples of figurative art in the world.

Music and sculpture — expressions of artistic creativity, it seems — were emerging in tandem among some of the first modern humans when they began spreading through Europe or soon thereafter.

Archaeologists reported Wednesday the discovery last fall of a bone flute and two fragments of ivory flutes that they said represent the earliest known flowering of music-making in Stone Age culture. They said the bone flute with five finger holes, found at Hohle Fels Cave in the hills west of Ulm, was “by far the most complete of the musical instruments so far recovered from the caves” in a region where pieces of other flutes have been turning up in recent years.

A three-hole flute carved from mammoth ivory was uncovered a few years ago at another cave, as well as two flutes made from the wing bones of a mute swan. In the same cave, archaeologists also found beautiful carvings of animals.

But until now the artifacts appeared to be too rare and not as precisely dated to support wider interpretations of the early rise of music. The earliest solid evidence of music instruments had previously come from France and Austria, but dated well after 30,000 years ago.

In an article published online by the journal Nature, Nicholas J. Conard of the University of Tübingen, in Germany, and colleagues wrote, “These finds demonstrate the presence of a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans colonized Europe.”
Read more and listen to a replica of the bone flute

Abstract from Nature:

Considerable debate surrounds claims for early evidence of music in the archaeological record1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Researchers universally accept the existence of complex musical instruments as an indication of fully modern behaviour and advanced symbolic communication1 but, owing to the scarcity of finds, the archaeological record of the evolution and spread of music remains incomplete. Although arguments have been made for Neanderthal musical traditions and the presence of musical instruments in Middle Palaeolithic assemblages, concrete evidence to support these claims is lacking1, 2, 3, 4. Here we report the discovery of bone and ivory flutes from the early Aurignacian period of southwestern Germany. These finds demonstrate the presence of a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans colonized Europe, more than 35,000 calendar years ago. Other than the caves of the Swabian Jura, the earliest secure archaeological evidence for music comes from sites in France and Austria and post-date 30,000 years ago.

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