Bone Flute Is Oldest Instrument, Study Says

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"Think how important music is for us," Conard said. "Whether it's at church, a party, or just for fun, you can see how powerful music can be. People often hear a song and cry, or feel great joy or sorrow. All of those kinds of emotions help bond people together."

Music may therefore have been important to maintaining and strengthening Stone Age social networks among modern humans, allowing for greater societal organization and strategizing, said Conard, whose study appears today on the Web site of the journal Nature.

Sour Note?

Some may doubt, though, that modern humans made the newfound flutes, or even that the instruments are the oldest on record.

A cave-bear bone found at a Stone Age site in Slovenia has been suggested as an even older flute, and perhaps even Neanderthal in origin. But many archaeologists are unconvinced, due to the ambiguous appearance of the bone.

"I don't think anyone takes that find too seriously," Conard said.

Even so, the archaeologist admits he can't completely rule out the possibility the newfound flutes were actually made by Neanderthals.

But, he said, decorative artifacts found alongside the flutes—most notably a recently reported ivory figurine of a woman with an exaggerated figure—make a Neanderthal origin "extremely unlikely," Conard said.

Around the flutes were "all kinds of things we never find with Neanderthals, and it seems a lot more plausible that they were made by modern humans," he said.

Lost in the debate is what would have likely been the key question among the flutes' prehistoric creators: How do they sound?

Last week a replica of the vulture-bone flute was sent to a professional musician, who coaxed out low-pitched sounds across a wide range of tones, Conrad said.

Renditions of the German national anthem and "Amazing Grace" made clear that the prehistoric flute is a truly different beast from modern-day instruments. Or, Conrad suggested, maybe the player just needs a little more time with it.

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