Patrick McGroarty, AP, June 24, 2009
A bird-bone flute unearthed in a German cave was carved some 35,000 years ago and is the oldest handcrafted musical instrument yet discovered, archaeologists say, offering the latest evidence that early modern humans in Europe had established a complex and creative culture.
A team led by University of Tuebingen archaeologist Nicholas Conard assembled the flute from 12 pieces of griffon vulture bone scattered in a small plot of the Hohle Fels cave in southern Germany.
Together, the pieces comprise a 8.6-inch (22-centimeter) instrument with five holes and a notched end. Conard said the flute was 35,000 years old.
“It’s unambiguously the oldest instrument in the world,” Conard told The Associated Press this week. His findings were published online Wednesday by the journal Nature.
The reassembled instrument was too fragile to be played, but Conard worked with another academic to make a copy of it from the same type of bone and to play it and produce recordings of songs such as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Other archaeologists agreed with Conard’s assessment.
Together, the flute and the figure–found in the same layer of sediment–suggest that modern humans had established an advanced culture in Europe 35,000 years ago, said Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands who didn’t participate in Conard’s study.
Roebroeks said it’s difficult to say how cognitively and socially advanced these people were. But the physical trappings of their lives–including musical instruments, personal decorations and figurative art–match the objects we associate with modern human behavior, Roebroeks said.
Neanderthals also lived in Europe around the time the flute and sculpture were made, and frequented the Hohle Fels cave. Both Conard and Roebroeks believe, however, that layered deposits left by both species over thousands of years suggest the artifacts were crafted by early modern humans.
“The material record is so completely different from what happened in these hundreds of thousands of years before with the Neanderthals,” Roebroeks said. “I would put my money on modern humans having created and played these flutes.”
Nowell said other researchers have hypothesized that early humans may have used spear points as wind chimes and that markings on some cave stalactites suggest they were used as percussive instruments. But there is no proof, she said, and the Hohle Fels flute is much more credible because it’s the oldest specimen from an established style of bone and ivory flutes in Europe.
Conard said it’s likely that early modern humans–and perhaps Neanderthals, too–were making music longer than 35,000 years ago. But he added the Hohle Fels flute and the others found across Europe strengthen evidence that modern humans in Europe were establishing cultural behavior similar to our own.