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Bone flutes found in German caves point to roots of creativity

May 29, 2012|By Chris Barton
  • Five holes were drilled into this vulture's wing bone 35,000 years ago in a 2009 find by researchers led by Professor Nicholas Conard of the University in Tuebingen. Researchers say it signifies a society that enjoyed music, dancing and drinking around the fire.
Five holes were drilled into this vulture's wing bone 35,000 years… (Daniel Maurer / Associated…)

Make jokes about flute players all you want, but it's looking more likely that our earliest musical impulses may have been fed by a variation on just such an instrument based on recent discoveries in caves in southern Germany.

Exploring a human cave settlement along the Danube with the tongue-twisting name Geißenklösterle, researchers have discovered flutes dating back to as much as as much as 45,000 years ago using radiocarbon-dated bones found in the same layer of the archaeological dig.

The discovery marks the earliest example of such instruments found to date, which points to early humans showing artistic impulses far earlier than initially belived.

Hewn from mammoth ivory and what appears to be the bones of a bird, the instruments are the second such find in the settlement from what's called the Aurignacian culture. In 2008, the oldest known example of figurative art was also found in the same cave system, the Venus of Hohle Fels.

"These results are consistent with a hypothesis we made several years ago that the Danube River was a key corridor for the movement of humans and technological innovations into central Europe between 40,000 and 45,000 years ago," study researcher Nick Conard of Tübingen University said in a statement, which was reported by Discovery News.

While of course the music from around the campfire when such instruments were played was surely a long way from Bach's Partita in A Minor, flautists should take heart that until a violin, piano or guitar turns up in one of these caves, they have some bragging rights. Just don't get too far into the evolutionary arc of jazz flute, because there things can get a little dicey.

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