Souvenir shops in South Africa are full of lamps made out of ostrich eggs. The eggs are so big and strong that you can carve and cut intricate designs into their shells. The egg’s contents are emptied through a hole and a bulb can be inserted instead, casting pretty shadows on walls and ceilings. The results are a big draw for modern tourists, but ostrich eggs have a long history of being used as art in South Africa. The latest finds show that people were carvings symbolic patterns into these eggs as early as 60,000 years ago.
Pierre-Jean Texier from the University of Bordeaux discovered a set of 270 eggshell fragments from Howieson Poort Shelter, a South African cave that has been a rich source of archaeological finds. Judging by their patterns, the fragments must have come from at least 25 separate eggs, although probably many more.
Texier says that the sheer number is “exceptional in prehistory”. Their unprecedented diversity and etched patterns provide some of the best evidence yet for a prehistoric artistic tradition. While previous digs have thrown up piecemeal examples of symbolic art, Texier’s finds allow him to compare patterns across individual pieces, to get a feel of the entire movement, rather than the work of an individual.
As you might expect, the millennia haven’t been too kind to the shells but even so, their etchings are still well preserved and Texier even managed to fit some of the pieces together. Despite the variety of fragments, their patterns fall into a very limited set of motifs produced in the same way – a hatched band like a railway track, parallel(ish) lines, intersecting lines, and cross-hatching. It’s possible that, once assembled, these elements would have combined into a more complex artistic whole but Texier notes that he has never found a piece with more than one motif on it.
Thirty-five thousands years before the likes of Kraftwerk, Nena and Rammstein, the lands of Germany were resounding to a very different sort of musical sound – tunes emanating from flutes made of bird bones and ivory. These thin tubes have recently been uncovered by Nicholas Conard from the University of Tubingen and they’re some of the oldest musical instruments ever discovered.
The ancient flutes hail from the Hohle Fels Cave in Germany’s Ach Valley, a veritable treasure trove of prehistoric finds that have also yielded the oldest known figurative art. The flutes were found less than a metre away. Together, these finds show that Europeans had a rich artistic and musical culture as far back as the Upper Palaeolithic period, some 35,000 years ago.
Conard unearthed the new finds last year, including several flutes of ivory and bone. One of these was found in 12 separate pieces, but once they were recovered and united, the insturment proved to be remarkably complete. It was so beautifully preserved that we can even work out its source – its maker fashioned it from the arm bone of a griffon vulture, a large species with long bones that make for good wind instruments.
The flute is just 8mm in diameter and has five finger holes along its 22cm length. Around each hole, there are up to four precisely carved notches, which Conard thinks were measurement markers that told the tool-maker where to chip an opening. Two deep, V-shaped notches were also carved into one end, which was presumably where its maker blew into to make sweet, prehistoric music.