World’s ‘oldest musical instrument’ found

Bone flute unearthed in Germany

An ancient flute thought to be the world’s oldest musical instrument has been found in a cave in Germany. Made of vulture bone, the instrument dates from around the time that humans began colonising Europe, around 33,000BC. The discovery by a group of scientists has led them to believe humans played music much earlier than previously thought.

Fragments of three flutes were found in the Hohle Fels cavern in southwest Germany by a team from Tubingen University. The near-complete vulture bone flute is 20cm long, has five finger holes and v-shaped notches that would have acted as a mouthpiece. Scientists think the instrument would have been held like a recorder, but the player would have blown across it like a flute. The other two flutes dug up by the archaeologists are made from ivory, thought to be from mammoth tusks.

Finding the flutes suggests that music was an important part of day-to-day life for early modern humans. And playing music may have helped maintain beneficial social networks, perhaps helping to explain why modern humans survived while the Neanderthals with whom they co-existed became extinct.

‘Music was used in many kinds of social contexts: possibly religious, possibly recreational – much like we use music today in many kinds of settings,’ says Professor Nicholas Conard of Tubingen University to BBC News. ‘The modern humans that came into our area already had a whole range of symbolic artifacts, figurative art, depictions of mythological creatures, many kinds of personal ornaments and also a well-developed musical tradition.’