It's widely agreed that the presence of complex musical instruments in an early modern society signals the existence of a highly evolved and creative culture. But because so few instruments have been found in archaeological digs, no one could determine when musical traditions and instruments first made their appearance. Now, however, archaeologist Nicholas Conard at the University of Tübingen in Germany and his colleagues have discovered a bird-bone flute in a German cave that dates to the Upper Palaeolithic period, some 40,000 years ago (see page 737). Conard tells Nature about the oldest musical instrument yet found.
How old is the flute?
It's close to 40,000 years old. It was carved from the radius bone of a griffon vulture, a bird that still exists today in Spain. We found it about 3 metres below the surface inside the Hohle Fels Cave in the Ach Valley west of Ulm. It was buried in clay-rich, muddy sediments that get no sunlight and stay at about 10 °C, so it was extremely well preserved, even though it was in 12 pieces. It's as if you had a delicate china teacup that you buried in the ground and left there for 40,000 years. It would probably break, but if you glued it back together it would be in pretty good shape.
Has anyone played it?
The independent experimental archaeologist Wulf Hein made a replica for us that could be played. It took him a while to get the right griffon vulture bone, but he finally got the flute carved and sent us a tape of the first song he recorded. It was The Star-Spangled Banner, which he had dedicated to US President Barack Obama. He said that when he first blew into the flute, the first three tones that sounded were the three opening notes of the US national anthem.
Were you surprised to discover the flute?
It was a shock. We've found a number of prehistoric flutes in recent years but none that was so complete. People's response to the replica flute music is also very powerful. When I've played recordings of it at assemblies, half the people in the audience have started weeping.
What does your finding tell us about prehistoric peoples?
This is the first time in early human evolution that we can say that we're dealing with people just like ourselves. If you could be transported back to 35,000 to 40,000 years ago, you might have to make a few cultural and material adjustments, but you'd find that everyone around you had the same intellectual capacities as you and your best friend.
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Abstractions. Nature 460, 666 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/7256666b