Flute found in cave believed to be oldest musical instrument


GERMAN RESEARCHERS have discovered what is believed to be the world’s oldest musical instrument – a 35,000-year-old primitive flute fashioned from a vulture’s wing-bone.

Some 20cm long with five finger holes, the instrument was found in the same cavern in southwestern Germany where archaeologists found a 35,000-year-old Venus figurine, believed to be the oldest sculpture of the human form.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that music was part of day-to-day life,” said Prof Nicholas Conard, the archaeologist who led the dig team from Tübingen University.

“Music was used in many kinds of social contexts: perhaps religious, possibly recreational, much like how we use music today in different settings.”

Three other flutes were found in the dig, made from mammoth ivory. “It’s really quite a surprise that these flutes were not just made from bird bones, which are hollow and ideal for making flutes, but also from mammoth ivory, a material that’s very hard to work,” he said.

The instruments are not just proof of the age of man’s musical legacy, he said, but an indication that, even 35,000 years ago, our forefathers had leisure time for hand crafts. Humans of the time were no longer merely hunters and gatherers, but artists too.

No one has tried to play the ancient flute – archaeologists assume the player blew through two V-shaped incisions in one end – but Conard said on German radio yesterday that a curious colleague had made a replica from vulture bone. “It sounded awful, really awful,” he said.

Presenting their findings in the journal Nature, the Tübingen team suggested this early emergence of art could be a clue as to why early modern humans survived while the Neanderthals eventually died out.

“Music may have contributed to the maintenance of larger social networks,” the researchers said.

“This perhaps helped facilitate the demographic and territorial expansion of modern humans relative to a culturally more conservative and demographically more isolated Neanderthal populations.”

There is little dispute that the instruments found by Conard are the world’s oldest, a title held until now by a group of 22 flutes found in the French Pyrenees and estimated to be 30,000 years old.

The flutes were found in a cave near Ulm in Germany’s Swabia region, where Conard’s team have found dozens of priceless artifacts. Conard said it was “plausible” that the flutes were carved by the same people as the recently presented “Venus” figurine.