|29 June 2009
Prehistoric flute in Germany is oldest known
The wing bone of a griffon vulture with five precisely drilled holes in it is the oldest known musical instrument, a 35,000-year-old relic unearthed in a German cave that offers the latest evidence that early modern humans in Europe had established a complex and creative culture.
A team led by University of Tuebingen archaeologist Nicholas Conard assembled the flute from 12 pieces of griffon vulture bone scattered in a small plot of the Hohle Fels cave in southern Germany. Together, the pieces comprise a 8.6-inch (22-centimeter) instrument with five holes and a notched end. Conard said the flute was 35,000 years old. "It's unambiguously the oldest instrument in the world," Conard said. Other archaeologists agreed with Conard's assessment. April Nowell, a Paleolithic archaeologist at the University of Victoria in Canada, said the flute predates previously discovered instruments "but the dates are not so much older that it's surprising or controversial." Nowell was not involved in Conard's research.
The surfaces of the flute and the structure of the bone are in excellent condition and reveal many details about its manufacture. The maker carved two deep, V-shaped notches into one end of the instrument, presumably to form the end into which the musician blew, and four fine lines near the finger holes. The other end is broken off, but, based on the normal size of the vultures, Conard estimates the intact flute was probably 2 to 3 inches longer.
The Hohle Fels flute is more complete and appears slightly older than bone and ivory fragments from seven other flutes recovered in southern German caves and documented by Conard and his colleagues in recent years. Another flute excavated in Austria is believed to be 19,000 years old, and a group of 22 flutes found in the French Pyrenees mountains has been dated at up to 30,000 years ago.
Conard's team excavated the flute in September 2008, the same month they recovered six ivory fragments from the Hohle Fels cave that form a female figurine they believe is the oldest known sculpture of the human form. Together, the flute and the figure - found in the same layer of sediment - suggest that modern humans had established an advanced culture in Europe 35,000 years ago, said Wil Roebroeks, an archaeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands who didn't participate in Conard's study. Neanderthals also lived in Europe around the time the flute and sculpture were made, and frequented the Hohle Fels cave. Both Conard and Roebroeks believe, however, that layered deposits left by both species over thousands of years suggest the artifacts were crafted by early modern humans.
In 1995, archaeologist Ivan Turk excavated a bear bone artifact from a cave in Slovenia, known as the Divje Babe flute, that he has dated at around 43,000 years ago and suggested was made by Neanderthals. But other archaeologists, including Nowell, have challenged that theory, suggesting instead that the twin holes on the 4.3-inch-long (11-centimeter-long) bone were made by a carnivore's bite. Nowell said other researchers have hypothesized that early humans may have used spear points as wind chimes and that markings on some cave stalactites suggest they were used as percussive instruments. But there is no proof, she said, and the Hohle Fels flute is much more credible because it's the oldest specimen from an established style of bone and ivory flutes in Europe.
Sources: Associated Press, Yahoo! News (24 June 2009), Los Angeles Times (25 June 2009)
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