The oldest musical instrument discovered


Early modern humans in Europe carved this 8.5 inch flute from vulture bone over 35,000 years ago.

How’s that for classic rock? German scientists have unearthed the oldest known musical instrument made by human hands. It is a delicate flute made from the wing bone of a vulture that dates back at least 35,000 years, just after the first modern humans entered Europe. The team discovered the flute littered with a treasure trove of loot from early humans in a mountain cave in southwestern Germany. It included a few other flute fragments and a female figurine carved from the ivory tusks of a mammoth of bodily proportions beyond Rubenesque. Likewise, this “Venus” is probably the oldest known relic of figurative art.

The findings are stunning new evidence for the creativity of early European Homo sapiens, who are believed to be responsible for the famous paintings of prehistoric animals inside France’s Chauvet Cave and other sites. We 21st century humans owe much to this artistic tradition, say the authors of the two recent German cave reports in Nature. They say this may have created enough social glue to help Homo sapiens intruders overpower the area’s existing residents, the Neanderthals.

The flute is missing one end but has five finger holes that appear carved by stone tools. The discovery team, which comes from the University of Tübingen, plans to make a replica to test the sound. Based on a reconstruction of a younger three-hole flute from the same region, this new find can produce even more notes and tones than modern flutes.

The cave, called Hohle Fels, lies just north of the Danube Valley, the likely route by which modern humans first entered Europe from Africa around 40,000 years ago. Although no human bones have yet been found in the deposit, the artifacts bear the cultural imprint of Homo sapiens and not Neanderthals (similar sites have been found with human remains only).

All strong evidence suggests that the Neanderthal mind was incapable of making musical instruments. Although a Neanderthal “flute” discovery by Slovenian scientists was highly publicized in 1996, it was later debunked as a bone fragment bitten by a cave bear. Whether Neanderthals made music, for example by banging on hollow skulls or “shaking stalagmites with their fingernails”, as archaeologist Steven Mithen suggests, there is no concrete evidence for this yet.

What is evident is that modern humans, on the other hand, are innately talented musicians and artists. It’s no small factor in the continued success of our species, archaeologists say. People tend to make music together, which creates a sense of unity that would have served early humans well during hunting and other well-planned group activities. This probably pushed the expansion of our species in ways that the Neanderthal culture could not. Neanderthals died out less than 30,000 years ago, eclipsed by a changing climate and the social prowess of growing human groups – the ultimate rock bands.

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