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Flute said to be oldest handcrafted musical instrument

June 25, 2009
Courtesy Nature
and World Science staff

It seems early mod­ern hu­mans were danc­ing to the tune of bird-bone flutes as early as 35,000 years ago, sci­en­tists say. 

Bone flute from Hohle Fels. (Pho­to: H.Jen­sen; © U. of Tub­ingen)


A study pub­lished in the June 25 is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Na­ture re­ports the dis­cov­ery of a five-hole bird-bone flute and two frag­ments of ivo­ry flutes from the cave of Hohle Fels in south­west­ern Ger­ma­ny. 

Sci­en­tists called the ob­ject the old­est hand­craft­ed mu­si­cal in­stru­ment dis­cov­ered to date.

Al­though ar­gu­ments have been made for Ne­an­der­thal mu­si­cal tra­di­tions and mu­si­cal in­stru­ments in the mid­dle part of the Old Stone Age, con­crete ev­i­dence has been lack­ing, ac­cord­ing to re­search­ers. 

Nich­o­las Conard of Tub­in­gen Un­ivers­ity, in Ger­ma­ny and col­leagues de­scribed the flutes, which were found close to a mammoth-i­vo­ry “Venus” fig­ur­ine re­ported re­cently in the jour­nal by the same group. 

The work demon­strates that the ear­li­est mod­ern hu­mans in Eu­rope, around 35,000-40,000 years ago, al­ready had a well-es­tab­lished mu­si­cal tra­di­tion, ac­cord­ing to Conard and col­leagues. 

These in­stru­ments, they added, are part of a pack­age of com­plex sym­bol­ic arte­facts that doc­u­ment that early mod­ern hu­mans in Eu­rope were cul­tur­ally “mod­ern.”


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It seems early modern humans were dancing to the tune of bird-bone flutes as early as 35,000 years ago, scientists say. A study published in the June 25 issue of the research journal Nature reports the discovery of a five-hole bird-bone flute and two fragments of ivory flutes from the cave of Hohle Fels in southwestern Germany. Scientists called the object the oldest handcrafted musical instrument discovered discovered to date. Although arguments have been made for Neanderthal musical traditions and musical instruments in the Middle Palaeolithic, concrete evidence has been lacking, according to researchers. Nicholas Conard of Tubingen University, in Germany and colleagues described the flutes, which were found close to a mammoth-ivory “Venus” figurine reported recently in the journal by the same group. The work demonstrates that the earliest modern humans in Europe, around 35,000-40,000 years ago, already had a well-established musical tradition, according to Conard and colleagues. These instruments, they added, are part of a package of complex symbolic artefacts that document that early modern humans in Europe were culturally “modern.”