Bone Flute

The oldest music instrument known today is a bone flute, which was dated to be about 36,800 years old. It was once cut out of a griffon vulture's wing-bone, is some 20 cm long with five finger holes.

The instrument was discovered in the cave ShowcaveHohler Fels near Schelklingen in south Germany. While Germany has no cave paintings at all, the caves in southern Germany's Blau and Lone valleys offer an tremendous amount of figurative art. Especially the Hohler Fels has been very productive during decades of excavations. Even after 95% of the material inside the cave were removed for the production of fertilizer, what is still in there astonishes the international public now and then.

The flutes found in the cave are of great importance. This one was the last in a series of of four flutes discovered during the last years in this cave and the nearby CaveGeißenklösterle. All of them are about 35,000 years old. The three other flutes were made from mammoth ivory, which is even more exceptional, as it is easy to make a flute from hollow bird bones, but much more difficult and time consuming to use solid ivory.

The interpretations of the flutes are important for the understanding of a time, when Homo neanderthalensis still shared the land with Homo sapiens. As Prof Nicholas Conard, the archaeologist from Tübingen University who led the dig, put it, they suggest that music was part of day-to-day life. Is was used in many kinds of social contexts: religious and recreational. But beneath the musical aspect, they tell us that 35,000 years ago people had leisure time for hand crafts. And it tell us, that people were becoming artists so long ago. And Prof Conard even speculates if the music may have been the cultural difference which allowed Homo sapiens to survive while Homo neanderthalensis died. Music may have contributed to the maintenance of larger social networks.

Actually the found flutes were discovered in pieces and puzzled together, obviously several parts are missing, probably important ones. The result is delicate and fragile, so nobody was able to play one of those flutes. A group of scientists used one of the flutes as a blueprint to make a replica from vulture bone. It sounded weird, so either this was the way it sounded then or the scientists missed a detail which was destroyed long ago.

Archaeologists have found flutes all over the world. The oldest flutes known until shortly were 22 flutes found in the French Pyrenees and estimated to be 30,000 years old.