Bone Flute Is Oldest Instrument, Study Says

The discovery pushes back humanity's musical roots.

A vulture-bone flute discovered in a European cave is likely the world's oldest recognizable musical instrument and pushes back humanity's musical roots, a new study says.

Found with fragments of mammoth-ivory flutes, the 40,000-year-old artifact also adds to evidence that music may have given the first European modern humans a strategic advantage over Neanderthals, researchers say.

The bone-flute pieces were found in 2008 at Hohle Fels, a Stone Age cave in southern Germany, according to the study, led by archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen in Germany.

With five finger holes and a V-shaped mouthpiece, the almost complete bird-bone flute—made from the naturally hollow wing bone of a griffon vulture—is just 0.3 inch (8 millimeters) wide and was originally about 13 inches (34 centimeters) long.

Flute fragments found earlier at the nearby site of Geissenklösterle have been dated to around 35,000 years ago.

The newfound flutes, though, "date to the very period of settlement in the region by modern humans ... about 40,000 years ago," Conard said.

The mammoth-ivory flutes would have been especially challenging to make, the team said.

Using only stone tools, the flute maker would have had to split a section of curved ivory along its natural grain. The two halves would then have been hollowed out, carved, and fitted together with an airtight seal.

(Also see "Stone Age Art Caves May Have Been Concert Halls.")

Music as a Weapon?

Music may have been one of the cultural accomplishments that gave the first European modern-human (Homo sapiens) settlers an advantage over their now extinct Neanderthal-human (Homo neanderthalis) cousins, according to the team.

The ancient flutes are evidence for an early musical tradition that likely helped modern humans communicate and form tighter social bonds, the researchers argue.

<p>Dr. Robert Ballard found the RMS <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/article/titanic-shipwreck-revealed-complete-mosaic-images"><i>Titanic</i></a> in 1985 with the help of imaging technologies designed by the National Geographic Society. For more than a century, a percentage of proceeds from National Geographic subscriptions has helped fund exploration around the world.</p>

Dr. Robert Ballard found the RMS Titanic in 1985 with the help of imaging technologies designed by the National Geographic Society. For more than a century, a percentage of proceeds from National Geographic subscriptions has helped fund exploration around the world.

Photograph by Emory Kristof, Nat Geo Image Collection

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