World's Oldest Flute Shows First Europeans Were a Musical Bunch

By Allison Bond | June 24, 2009 5:44 pm

bird bone fluteA 35,000-year-old flute made of vulture bone found in a cave in southwestern Germany is the world’s oldest known musical instrument. The artifact suggests music may have been one advantage our ancestors had over their cousins, the now-extinct Neanderthals, according to a report published in the journal Nature.

The five-holed flute, which is fully intact and made from a griffon vulture’s radius bone, was discovered with fragments of other flutes crafted out of mammoth ivory. The bird-bone instrument was found in a region in which similar instruments have popped up lately, says lead author Nicholas Conard, but this flute is “by far the most complete of the musical instruments so far recovered from the caves.” … Until now the artifacts appeared to be too rare and not as precisely dated to support wider interpretations of the early rise of music [The New York Times]. To make sure the newly discovered instruments were dated correctly, samples were tested independently and using different methods at facilities in England and Germany. Both found the bone to be at least 35,000 years old, during the Modern Paleolithic era.

The ancient flute give archaeologists a glimpse into a population that was apparently already beginning to form its own culture and traditions. The flutes show that the human society of the time was becoming modern, [comments functional morphologist Jeffrey Laitman]. They were not simply devoting their lives to finding food, he said. The flutes “are telling us about intricate and delicate communication, bonding, social events that are going on” [HealthDay News]. Conard admits it’s not definitively proven that the flutes were made by Homo sapiens, not Neanderthals. Still, he says that the presence of other artistic artifacts near the instruments, such as a busty ivory figurine, mean it’s highly unlikely Neanderthals crafted the flute.

Early humans’ budding culture might have helped them survive while the Neanderthals, which left no concrete evidence of music-making, mysteriously died off. The ancient flutes are evidence for an early musical tradition that likely helped modern humans communicate and form tighter social bonds…. Music may therefore have been important to maintaining and strengthening Stone Age social networks among modern humans, allowing for greater societal organization and strategizing, said Conard [National Geographic News]. The bird-bone flute probably produced a range of harmonic tones similar to modern flute, according to a specialist in ancient music, who reproduced another Stone Age flute made of ivory to see what the original might have sounded like.

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Image: H.Jensen; Copyright: University of Tubingen

  • Nick

    My question is: when does someone blow on this, record it and release the samples for cultural posterity? A flautist with an iron stomach will likely be required for such a gross task, but hey, it’s for humanity’s betterment, right?

    Or at the very least 3d scan it and print it from one of those fancy 3d printers.

  • Jumblepudding

    I agree. Somebody should play it. I vote Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull. I wonder if stone age children who elected to play flute in band were ridiculed the way they are today.

  • Stephen

    “Early humans’ budding culture might have helped them survive while the Neanderthals, which left no concrete evidence of music-making, mysteriously died off.”

    I’d like to challenge this statement. There is an much earlier Discover article that indicates even the Neanderthals used musical instruments, including a mammoth tusk “tuba” and nose “bagpipe”. According to the article, these instruments are ~50,000 years old and predate modern humans in Europe.

    Has this discovery been refuted or overturned? Did modern humans learn from and refine their musical instruments from those created by their Neanderthal cousins? Could these Stone Age people have worked together to form the world’s first Rock band? Anyone?

  • Amit

    Just need to make sure before that the flute does not blow into pieces.

  • Eliza Strickland

    Stephen — you’ve stumbled across one of DISCOVER’s infamous spoof articles. Check the date on it — April 1, 1997.

    I know it’s a little weird to see these articles in our archives, out of context, but there were some clues tucked into the article — like the researcher’s place of employment, Hindenburg University.

  • Amber Lovett

    this was very helpful!!

  • Angela Katherine

    I am convinced the music they produced back then is loads better than anything shown on MTV.

  • Camille

    Hi, All,

    Just ran across this article & I have some comments on it.

    1) I agree w/ Nick & Jumblepudding’s idea of making music from this but think it should be done from a casting of the original. That’s so that, hopefully, there will be DNA testing on the original. Jumblepudding’s suggesion of Ian Anderson is great!

    2) I, of course, haven’t seen the original, but, speaking now as a senior-level archaeologist, in looking at the pic, & contrary to what the article says, I think the flute is *not* intact. The article says it’s a 5-holed flute, but clearly, there are only 4 holes showing. There is evidence, at either end, of breakage; the broken ends might have been where other holes were. Looking at these areas under a microscope (microwear analysis) could easily verify that. So, if not intact, the actual no. of holes in the instrument is unknown & further speculation such as “might be capable of expressing greater harmonic variety than the modern-day flute” (from the related article at is just that– speculation.

    3) Relating to Stephen’s comment which referenced an earlier Discover article, I am very disturbed that Discover would publish a ‘joke’ article, which, unless you noticed the date– April 1st– appears otherwise to be scholarly & serious. I would like to think that I have a good sense of humor & can appreciate that Discover may want to make science
    ‘entertaining’ for the masses, but I, for one, think that science is fascinating enough without having to resort to such tactics! I hope Discover has discontinued such ‘jokes’. (Perhaps these ‘April 1st’ articles could be more obviously labelled as joke articles.)

  • S

    What was the first musical instrument ever made? By who?


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