Bone Flute Is Oldest Instrument, Study Says

James Owen
for National Geographic News
June 24, 2009
A vulture-bone flute discovered in a European cave is likely the world's oldest recognizable musical instrument and pushes back humanity's musical roots, a new study says.

Found with fragments of mammoth-ivory flutes, the 40,000-year-old artifact also adds to evidence that music may have given the first European modern humans a strategic advantage over Neanderthals, researchers say.

The bone-flute pieces were found in 2008 at Hohle Fels, a Stone Age cave in southern Germany, according to the study, led by archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen in Germany.

With five finger holes and a V-shaped mouthpiece, the almost complete bird-bone flute—made from the naturally hollow wing bone of a griffon vulture—is just 0.3 inch (8 millimeters) wide and was originally about 13 inches (34 centimeters) long.

Flute fragments found earlier at the nearby site of Geissenklösterle have been dated to around 35,000 years ago.

The newfound flutes, though, "date to the very period of settlement in the region by modern humans ... about 40,000 years ago," Conard said.

The mammoth-ivory flutes would have been especially challenging to make, the team said.

Using only stone tools, the flute maker would have had to split a section of curved ivory along its natural grain. The two halves would then have been hollowed out, carved, and fitted together with an airtight seal.

(Also see "Stone Age Art Caves May Have Been Concert Halls.")

Music as a Weapon?

Music may have been one of the cultural accomplishments that gave the first European modern-human (Homo sapiens) settlers an advantage over their now extinct Neanderthal-human (Homo neanderthalis) cousins, according to the team.

The ancient flutes are evidence for an early musical tradition that likely helped modern humans communicate and form tighter social bonds, the researchers argue.

"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.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.