Making Sweet Music Aurignacian-Style

Stone Age man in a cave in south-west Germany 35,000 years ago really knew how to party it seems. Not only has an example of pre-historic porn been found in the cave of Hohle Fels, near the town of Schelklingen in the region of Swabia, but now too a portion of a thin rudimentary flute carved from bird bone which experts are calling unambiguously the oldest musical instrument in the world.

Its not the first such example found in the cave, which is an ongoing source of spectacular archaeological finds dating from the Aurignacian culture of the Upper Paleolithic period. A bone flute and two fragments of ivory flutes were uncovered there last year, while a three-hole mammoth ivory-carved flute plus two flutes made from the wing bones of a swan were excavated at another site nearby a few years ago. But this latest find made in September 2008 and revealed to the public just this week is by far the most complete of the musical instruments so far recovered from the caves.

Measuring almost 22 centimetres long and 2.2 centimetres wide, it was carved from the bone of a griffon vulture (the remains of many of which have been found in the area) and includes the end of the instrument into which the Stone Age musician would have blown, as marked by two deep V-shaped indents. It has five holes, each of which bears the engraving of a fine line nearby. Part of the flute has been snapped off; judging by the average length of griffon bones, we can assume that perhaps as much as another eight centimetres of the instrument is missing.

Independent radiocarbon tests carried out in England and Germany led scientists to agree that the artefact is as much as 35,000 years old 5,000 years older than the next oldest known example yet found. Homo sapiens are believed to have settled extensively in the region about 40,000 years ago, which was 10,000 years before the extinction of Neanderthals although the instrument has been firmly attributed to the Homo sapiens.

Other artefacts found in the cave point to further examples of creative expression from its Stone Age residents. As mentioned above, a small erotic figurine was discovered there recently too, in sediment just a few metres away from the spot of the flute. Various cave drawings have been found on the caves walls too, along with multiple stone and ivory artefacts, flint-knapping debris and bones of hunted animals.

We can now conclude that music played an important role in Aurignacian life in the Ach and Lone valleys, commented Nicholas Conard, a professor at the University of Tubingen, which has been leading research at Hohle Fels. It has been speculated that it would have served as a means of social bonding or as a simple celebration post-hunt for Hohle Fels’ pre-historic tenants. The bone flute is far too fragile to play, but a wooden replica has been tested extensively apparently its possible to perform the opening bars of the Star Spangled Banner. Great, but do you have something we can dance to?