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Planet Earth

#51: Oldest Musical Instrument Found

35,000 years ago, humans in what's now Germany were making sophisticated flutes from the bones of griffon vultures.

By Aline ReynoldsJanuary 3, 2010 6:00 AM

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More than 35,000 years ago, our ancestors living in present-day southwestern Germany were playing sophisticated music, according to University of Tübingen archaeologist Nicholas Conard. In June he announced that he and his colleagues had unearthed an ancient bone flute in Hohle Fels, a cave in the Swabian mountains. The sound produced by the flute “is almost identical to tones of the major scale played on today’s flute,” says Nikolaj Tarasov, a recorder specialist at the Music University of Karlsruhe in Germany. The five-holed instrument—carved from the bone of a griffon vulture—might be capable of expressing greater harmonic variety than the modern-day flute, he says.

Conard’s group discovered fragments of three ivory flutes in their 2008 digs. Four other bone and ivory flutes were previously found in the same area. Collectively, these are regarded as the oldest known musical instruments. The researchers conjecture that music was important in the geographic expansion and cultural development of humans during the Upper Paleolithic era. “We can now state that our ancestors had a developed culture,” Tarasov says. “Not only were they surviving, but they had time to do something that required superior skill.”

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