The earliest musical tradition

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Music is a ubiquitous element in our daily lives, and was probably just as important to our early ancestors. Fragments of ancient flutes reveal that music was well established in Europe by about 40,000 years ago.

The Palaeolithic caves of the Swabian Jura in southwestern Germany have been a source of valuable and often provocative archaeological discoveries for many decades. In particular, finds of figurative art from the early Aurignacian — the earliest Upper Palaeolithic archaeological culture associated with modern humans in Europe — suggest that these hunter–gatherers had the knowledge, expertise, incentive and time to craft sophisticated objects for use in ritual activities. These activities probably served to affirm group affiliation, signal social identity and mark important social events or rites of passage. Conard et al.1 (page 737 of this issue) now reveal that the Aurignacian inhabitants of the Swabian Jura had also mastered the art of music. Their detailed report highlights the discovery of a largely complete flute (Fig. 1) and two small flute fragments in the oldest Aurignacian layer at Hohle Fels Cave.

Figure 1: Sounds old.


Conard et al.1 have discovered the oldest known flute, at Hohle Fels Cave in Germany. The flute is made from bird bone, and dates from the early Aurignacian, 40,000 years ago.

Conard recently reported2 the discovery of a female figurine carved from mammoth ivory in an Aurignacian layer at Hohle Fels dated to at least 35,000 years ago (based on the newly calibrated radiocarbon timescale). At present, this is the earliest such find in the world. Additional examples of figurative art — of mammoths, horses, bison, cave lions, waterfowl and half-human, half-animal 'therianthropes' — have also been found in Aurignacian layers at Hohle Fels and other sites in the Swabian Jura. These finds suggest that the region was inhabited by a population of Homo sapiens sapiens that had mastered, among other things, the manipulation of mammoth ivory into three-dimensional, naturalistic forms for purposes not directly related to daily economic needs. Just as we continue to do today, these hunter–gatherers produced symbolic objects that embodied complex beliefs shared by a larger community of individuals.

The newly discovered flutes1 suggest that music accompanied both daily and ritual activities. The most complete specimen, measuring 21.8 centimetres in length and with a diameter of 0.8 centimetres (Fig. 1), was produced from the radius (lower forelimb) of a griffon vulture. This flute retains five finger holes — although there may have been more — and the proximal end of the radius has been modified to serve as a mouthpiece. The two smaller fragments, made of ivory, are clearly derived from at least one other flute. There is little doubt that these implements are flutes, and given that they were recovered from secure, meticulously excavated and documented contexts within the cave, their archaeological association, stratigraphic provenance and age are not in question.

The oldest Aurignacian layer from which the three flute fragments were recovered dates to approximately 40,000 years ago and directly overlies the final Neanderthal layer. This date is believed to mark the initial expansion of modern human populations into the Swabian Jura, probably via the Danube Corridor3. although these are currently the earliest flutes known, it is reasonable to expect that even earlier examples were produced within and outside the region: the instruments from Hohle Fels are too 'evolved' in terms of design and manufacture to represent the first flutes. The makers and players of the Aurignacian flutes were thus not novices, but had considerable musical knowledge and experience that may have resulted from some form of trans-generational communication. Moreover, the earliest musical instruments, such as drums and rattles, were probably made of perishable materials — perhaps wood and hide — that are not routinely preserved in the archaeological record. Even so, these flutes from southwestern Germany are of immense importance, as they document a mature musical tradition that was firmly in place thousands of years earlier than previously thought.

The discoveries reported by Conard and colleagues1 answer several crucial questions about the context and antiquity of early music in the Upper Palaeolithic. But precisely how and why music became such a ubiquitous — and economically profitable — aspect of virtually every modern human society is unclear. Unlike the origins of language, which have long been the subject of intense research, the evolutionary significance of music has only recently been seriously investigated. Specifically, researchers seek to understand whether the human faculty for music is subject to natural selection. If so, when and under what circumstances did it evolve, and how might it have affected the reproductive fitness of individuals and groups that expressed musical behaviours?

Several general theories have been proposed to explain the evolution of music. For example, music is thought to have aided group cooperation, social cohesion and group synchrony, and coalition signalling4,5,6. It may also have played a part in mate selection, conflict reduction or vocal grooming4. Music could even have acted as a mnemonic device for long-term information exchange. But efforts to develop testable evolutionary hypotheses of music have been largely unsuccessful, and it is widely accepted that, if music is an evolutionary adaptation, then it probably had a complex origin that might be related to pre-existing cognitive and auditory adaptations in humans. Comparative research on the musical capacities of non-human animals7 will allow us to develop a better understanding of which aspects of a general musical faculty, if any, are unique to humans.

The discovery of the flutes1 from Hohle Fels make it clear that, by the early Aurignacian period roughly 40,000 years ago, our modern human predecessors in the Swabian Jura (and probably elsewhere) had thoroughly integrated music into their everyday lives — most probably as a critical element in rituals, but also as a means of fostering a sense of shared identity and common purpose. Music almost certainly helped to build and maintain group cohesion and social networks, by creating shared norms of musical aesthetics and storytelling, and through the strong emotions that music can elicit. Although we will never know precisely what music these Palaeolithic flautists played, or under what conditions they played it, Conard and colleagues' extraordinary finds1 are clear proof that our ongoing obsession with music and musicians is of considerable antiquity.


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Adler, D. The earliest musical tradition. Nature 460, 695–696 (2009) doi:10.1038/460695a

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