Page last updated at 08:05 GMT, Thursday, 25 June 2009 09:05 UK

'Oldest musical instrument' found

By Pallab Ghosh
Science correspondent, BBC News

Bone flute from Hohle Fels (H Jensen)

Scientists in Germany have published details of flutes dating back to the time that modern humans began colonising Europe, 35,000 years ago.

The flutes are the oldest musical instruments found to date.

The researchers say in the Journal Nature that music was widespread in pre-historic times.

Music, they suggest, may have been one of a suite of behaviours displayed by our own species which helped give them an edge over the Neanderthals.

The team from Tubingen University have published details of three flutes found in the Hohle Fels cavern in southwest Germany.

The cavern is already well known as a site for signs of early human efforts; in May, members of the same team unveiled a Hohle Fels find that could be the world's oldest Venus figure.

The most well-preserved of the flutes is made from a vulture's wing bone, measuring 20cm long with five finger holes and two "V"-shaped notches on one end of the instrument into which the researchers assume the player blew.

The archaeologists also found fragments of two other flutes carved from ivory that they believe was taken from the tusks of mammoths.

Creative origins

The find brings the total number of flutes discovered from this era to eight, four made from mammoth ivory and four made from bird bones.

According to Professor Nicholas Conard of Tubingen University, this suggests that the playing of music was common as far back as 40,000 years ago when modern humans spread across Europe.

"It's becoming increasingly clear that music was part of day-to-day life," he said.

"Music was used in many kinds of social contexts: possibly religious, possibly recreational - much like we use music today in many kinds of settings."

These flutes provide yet more evidence of the sophistication of the people that lived at that time
Professor Chris Stringer
Natural History Museum

The researchers also suggest that not only was music widespread much earlier than previously thought, but so was humanity's creative spirit.

"The modern humans that came into our area already had a whole range of symbolic artifacts, figurative art, depictions of mythological creatures, many kinds of personal ornaments and also a well-developed musical tradition," Professor Conard explained.

The team argues that the emergence of art and culture so early might explain why early modern humans survived and Neanderthals, with whom they co-existed at the time, became extinct.

"Music could have contributed to the maintenance of larger social networks, and thereby perhaps have helped facilitate the demographic and territorial expansion of modern humans relative to a culturally more conservative and demographically more isolated Neanderthal populations," they wrote.


That is a view supported by Professor Chris Stringer, a human origins researcher at the Natural History Museum in London.

"These flutes provide yet more evidence of the sophistication of the people that lived at that time and the probable behavioural and cognitive gulf between them and Neanderthals," he said.

"I think the occurrence of these flutes and animal and human figurines about 40,000 years ago implies that the traditions that produced them must go back even further in the evolutionary history of modern humans - perhaps even into Africa more than 50,000 years ago.

"But that evidence has still to be discovered."

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