A 35,000-year-old flute is the oldest known musical instrument

The wing bone of a griffon vulture with five precision-drilled holes is the oldest known musical instrument, a 35,000-year-old relic of an early human society that drank beer, played the flute and drums and danced around the campfire on cold winter evenings. , researchers said Wednesday.

Excavated from a cave in Germany, the almost complete flute suggests that the first humans to occupy Europe had a fairly sophisticated culture, with alcohol, ornaments, art objects and music they have developed there or even brought with them from Africa when they moved to the new continent around 40,000 years ago.

“It’s not too surprising that music is part of their culture,” said archaeologist John J. Shea of ​​Stony Brook University, who was not involved in the research. “Every society we know has music. The more prevalent a feature is today, the more likely it is to carry over into the past.

Music-making probably dates back even further in the past, he said, but the flute may represent “the first time people invested time and energy in making instruments that were [durable enough to be] retained.”

The flute was discovered last summer in the Hohle Fels cave, about 22 km southwest of the city of Ulm, by archaeologist Nicholas J. Conard from the University of Tubingen in Germany. Conard described the discovery in a report published online by the journal Nature.

The cave is the same one where Conard found the recently described 40,000-year-old Venus figurine, the oldest known depiction of the female form; as well as a host of other artifacts, including ivory carvings of a horse or bear head; a waterfowl that can be in flight; and a half-human, half-lion figure.

The cave, which has been occupied for millennia, “is one of the most wonderfully clear windows into the past, where the conditions for preservation are perfect,” Shea said. “Combine that with a skilled excavator, and you have some really great archeology.”

The reconstructed flute, just under 9 inches long, was found in 12 pieces in a layer of sediment nearly 9 feet below the cave floor. The team also found fragments of two ivory flutes – which are less durable – which are probably not as old.

The surfaces of the flute and the bone structure are in excellent condition and reveal many details of its manufacture. The luthier cut two deep V-shaped notches at one end of the instrument, presumably to form the end into which the musician blew, and four thin lines near the finger holes. The other end is broken off, but, based on the normal size of vultures, Conard estimates that the intact flute was probably 2 to 3 inches longer.

In 2004, Conard found a 30,000-year-old 7-inch three-hole ivory flute in the nearby cave of Geissenklosterle, and he found fragments of several others, although none were as old as the artifact. by Hohlefels. Combined, the finds point to the development of a strong musical tradition in the region, along with the development of figurative art and other innovations, Conard said.

The presence of music did not directly produce a more efficient subsistence economy and greater reproductive success, he concluded, but it appears to have contributed to better social cohesion and new forms of communication, which indirectly contributed to the demographic expansion of modern humans at the expense of the culturally more conservative Neanderthals.

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