BERLIN — A bird-bone flute unearthed in a German cave was carved some 35,000 years ago and is the oldest handcrafted musical instrument yet discovered, archeologists say, offering the latest evidence that early modern humans in Europe had a complex and creative culture.
A team led by archeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tuebingen assembled the flute from 12 pieces of griffon vulture bone scattered in a small plot of the Hohle Fels cave in southern Germany.
Together, the pieces comprise a 22-centimetre instrument with five holes and a notched end. Conard said the flute is 35,000 years old.
“It’s unambiguously the oldest instrument in the world,” said Conard. His findings were published online Wednesday by the journal Nature.
Other archeologists agreed with Conard’s assessment. April Nowell, a Paleolithic archeologist at the University of Victoria, said the flute predates previously discovered instruments, “but the dates are not so much older that it’s surprising or controversial.” The Canadian scientist was not involved in Conard’s research.
The Hohle Fels flute is more complete and appears slightly older than bone and ivory fragments from seven other flutes recovered in southern German caves and documented by Conard and his colleagues in recent years.
Another flute excavated in Austria is believed to be 19,000 years old, and a group of 22 flutes found in the French Pyrenees mountains has been dated at up to 30,000 years old.
Conard’s team excavated the flute in September 2008, the same month they recovered six ivory fragments from the Hohle Fels cave that form a female figurine they believe is the oldest known sculpture of the human form.
Together, the flute and the figure — found in the same layer of sediment — suggest that modern humans had established an advanced culture in Europe 35,000 years ago, said Wil Roebroeks, an archeologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands who didn’t participate in the study.
Roebroeks said it’s difficult to say how cognitively and socially advanced these people were. But the physical trappings of their lives — including musical instruments, personal decorations and figurative art — match the objects we associate with modern human behaviour, he said.
“It shows that from the moment that modern humans enter Europe … it is as modern in terms of material culture as it can get,” Roebroeks said. He agreed with Conard’s assertion that the flute appears to be the earliest-known musical instrument in the world.
Neanderthals also lived in Europe around the time the flute and sculpture were made, and frequented the Hohle Fels cave. Both Conard and Roebroeks believe, however, that layered deposits left by both species over thousands of years suggest the artifacts were crafted by early modern humans.
“The material record is so completely different from what happened in these hundreds of thousands of years before with the Neanderthals,” Roebroeks said. “I would put my money on modern humans having created and played these flutes.”
In 1995, archeologist Ivan Turk excavated a bear bone artifact from a cave in Slovenia, known as the Divje Babe flute, that he dated at around 43,000 years old and suggested was made by Neanderthals.
But other archeologists, including Nowell, have challenged that theory, suggesting instead that the twin holes on the 11-centimetre-long bone were made by a carnivore’s bite.
Turk did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Nowell said other researchers have hypothesized that early humans may have used spear points as wind chimes and that markings on some cave stalactites suggest they were used as percussive instruments. But there is no proof, she said, and the Hohle Fels flute is much more credible because it’s the oldest specimen from an established style of bone and ivory flutes in Europe.
“There’s a distinction between sporadic appearances and the true development of, in this case, a musical culture,” Nowell said. “The importance of something like this flute is it shows a well-established technique and tradition.”
Conard said it’s likely that early modern humans — and perhaps Neanderthals, too — were making music before 35,000 years ago. But the Hohle Fels flute and the others found across Europe strengthen evidence, he added, that modern humans in Europe were establishing cultural behaviour similar to our own.