Oldest Musical Instrument Found

Bird-bone flute hints that Paleolithic humans banded together to the demise of Neanderthals

Flute

The earliest modern humans in Europe carved this 8.5-inch flute from a vulture bone more than 35,000 years ago.

How's this for classic rock? German scientists have unearthed the oldest-known musical instrument fashioned by human hands. It's a delicate flute made from the wing bone of a vulture that dates to at least 35,000 years old—just after the first modern humans entered Europe. The team discovered the flute littered among a trove of early-human loot at a mountain cave in southwest Germany. It included a few other flute fragments and a female figurine carved from the ivory tusks of a mammoth with body proportions that are beyond Rubenesque. Likewise, this "Venus" is probably the oldest-known relic of figurative art.

The finds are stunning new evidence of the creativity of the first European Homo sapiens, who are thought to be responsible for the famous prehistoric animal paintings inside France's Chauvet cave and other sites. We 21st-century humans owe much to this artistic tradition, say the authors of the two recent reports on the German cave in Nature. They say it may have fostered enough social glue to help the Homo sapiens intruders dominate over the region's existing residents, the Neanderthals.

The flute is missing one end but has five finger holes that appear carved by stone tools. The discovery team, which hails from the University of Tübingen, plans to make a replica to test the sound. Based on a reconstruction of a younger three-hole flute from the same region, this new find may yield even more notes and tones than modern flutes.

The cave, called Hohle Fels, is just north of the Danube valley, the likely route by which modern humans first entered Europe from Africa about 40,000 years ago. Although no human bones have yet been found in the deposit, the artifacts bear the cultural stamp of Homo sapiens and not Neanderthals (Similar sites have been found with human remains only.)

All firm evidence suggests that the Neanderthal mind was unable to craft musical instruments. Although a Neanderthal "flute" find by Slovenian scientists was much hyped in 1996, it was later debunked as a bone fragment bitten by a cave bear. If Neanderthals made any form of music—say by banging on hollow skulls or "flicking stalagmites with their fingernails," as the archaeologist Steven Mithen gamely suggests—there's no concrete evidence of it yet.

What's obvious is that modern humans, on the other hand, are innately talented musicians and artists. That's no small factor into our species' continued success, say archaeologists. People tend to make music together, which builds a feeling of unity that would have served early humans well during hunting and other well-planned group activities. That likely prodded the expansion of our species in ways that Neanderthal culture could not. Neanderthals died out less than 30,000 years ago, eclipsed by a changing climate and the social prowess of growing human groups—the ultimate rock bands.