The wing bone of a griffon vulture with five precisely drilled holes in it is the oldest known musical instrument, a 35,000-year-old relic of an early human society that drank beer, played flute and drums and danced around the campfire on cold winter evenings, researchers said Wednesday.
Excavated from a cave in Germany, the nearly complete flute suggests that the first humans to occupy Europe had a fairly sophisticated culture, complete with alcohol, adornments, art objects and music that they developed there or even brought with them from Africa when they moved to the new continent 40,000 years or so ago.
"It is not too surprising that music was a part of their culture," said archaeologist John J. Shea of Stony Brook University, who was not involved in the research. "Every single society we know of has music. The more widespread a characteristic is today, the more likely it is to spread back into the past."
The making of music probably extended even further back into the past, he said, but the flute may represent "the first time that people invested time and energy in making instruments that were [durable enough to be] preserved."
The flute was discovered last summer in the Hohle Fels cave, about 14 miles southwest of the city of Ulm, by archaeologist Nicholas J. Conard of University of Tubingen in Germany. Conard described the find in a report published online by the journal Nature.
The cave is the same one where Conard found the recently described 40,000-year-old Venus figurine, the oldest known representation of the female form; as well as a host of other artifacts, including ivory carvings of a horse's or bear's head; a water bird that may be in flight; and a half-human, half-lion figure.
The cave, which was occupied for millenniums, "is one of the most wonderfully clear windows into the past, where conditions of preservation are just right," Shea said. "Combine that with a gifted excavator, and you get truly great archaeology."
The reconstructed flute, a little under 9 inches long, was found in 12 pieces in a layer of sediment nearly 9 feet below the cave's floor. The team also found fragments of two ivory flutes -- which are less durable -- that are probably not quite as old.
The surfaces of the flute and the structure of the bone are in excellent condition and reveal many details about its manufacture. The maker carved two deep, V-shaped notches into one end of the instrument, presumably to form the end into which the musician blew, and four fine lines near the finger holes. The other end is broken off, but, based on the normal size of the vultures, Conard estimates the intact flute was probably 2 to 3 inches longer.
In 2004, Conard found a 30,000-year-old, 7-inch, three-holed ivory flute at the nearby Geissenklosterle cave, and he has found fragments of several others, although none are as old as the Hohle Fels artifact. Combined, the finds indicate the development of a strong musical tradition in the region, accompanied by the development of figurative art and other innovations, Conard said.
The presence of music did not directly produce a more effective subsistence economy and greater reproductive success, he concluded, but it seems to have contributed to improved social cohesion and new forms of communication, which indirectly contributed to demographic expansion of modern humans to the detriment of the culturally more conservative Neanderthals.