35,000-year-old German flutes display excellent kraftwerk

Not Exactly Rocket Science
By Ed Yong
Jun 24, 2009 10:00 PMNov 5, 2019 12:13 AM


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Thirty-five thousands years before the likes of Kraftwerk, Nena and Rammstein, the lands of Germany were resounding to a very different sort of musical sound - tunes emanating from flutes made of bird bones and ivory. These thin tubes have recently been uncovered by Nicholas Conard from the University of Tubingen and they're some of the oldest musical instruments ever discovered.

The ancient flutes hail from the Hohle Fels Cave in Germany's Ach Valley, a veritable treasure trove of prehistoric finds that have also yielded the oldest known figurative art. The flutes were found less than a metre away. Together, these finds show that Europeans had a rich artistic and musical culture as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic period, some 35,000 years ago.

Conard unearthed the new finds last year, including several flutes of ivory and bone. One of these was found in 12 separate pieces, but once they were recovered and united, the insturment proved to be remarkably complete. It was so beautifully preserved that we can even work out its source - its maker fashioned it from the arm bone of a griffon vulture, a large species with long bones that make for good wind instruments.

The flute is just 8mm in diameter and has five finger holes along its 22cm length. Around each hole, there are up to four precisely carved notches, which Conard thinks were measurement markers that told the tool-maker where to chip an opening. Two deep, V-shaped notches were also carved into one end, which was presumably where its maker blew into to make sweet, prehistoric music.

Conard is working on creating a replica of the instrument, but he thinks that blowing into the instrument (without any additional mouthpiece) would have been enough. A similarly ancient swan-bone flute found elsewhere can actually be played in this way, producing four basic notes and three overtones depending on how sharply you blow. This instrument is smaller than the vulture-based model but with just three holes, it can produce a range of notes comparable to many modern flutes. Presumably the new find had an even larger range.

The Hohle Fels excavations also turned up small fragments from what were probably three ivory flutes. The design was similar to the bird-bone versions, but manufacturing these instruments would have been much more difficult. Unlike a hollow vulture bone, a mammoth tusk would have to be carved roughly into shape, split open, carefully hollowed and joined back together with an airtight seal.

Carbon-dating finds from the Hohle Fels region has been a complicated business, but Conard is certain that the flutes are at least 35,000 years old, if not older. The first of such instruments was discovered in 1995 and while they seemed to be unique at the time, these more recent discoveries bring the total number of finds to eight - four of bone and four of ivory.

That strongly suggests that the humans who lived in the ancient Ach valley had a rich musical life. Judging by what we've discovered so far, musical traditions appeared at about the same time as many other innovations such as figurative art and new styles of personal ornaments - remains of these too have been recovered from the German sites.

Cultural traditions such as music could have played a small part in cementing large social networks (perhaps in the same way that modern Europeans still get together to watch the Eurovision Song Contest, despite all better judgment). Conard even speculates that such community-building activities even contributed to our ancestors expanding their range at the cost of the more culturally conservative Neanderthals, who lived in the same area.

Reference: 10.1038/nature08169

More on the Hohle Fels finds:

Prehistoric carving is oldest known figurative art

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