EARLY MODERN MAN OLDEST FLUTES AND MUSIC
world's oldest flute Musical instruments were one of the first forms of artistic expression to appear. Some scholars, including Darwin, speculated they appeared before speech. Drums and other percussion instruments were presumably among the first instruments to appear. Red painted mammoth bones found at Paleolithic sites may have been used as percussion instruments. Instruments resembling bull-roarers made of bone and ivory have been found at very old sites.
The bow may have been one of the worlds’s first music instruments. Seven-thousand-year old cave painting in the Sahara depict bows being used as instruments. Bushmen today make haunting music with such a bow-like an instrument. The bow that is placed in the mouth. Sound is produced by tapping a sinew string with a reed. Modern instruments such as the Chinese ehru are essentially bows.
Nicholas J. Conard of the University of Tübingen, in Germany wrote in Nature that music in the Stone Age “could have contributed to the maintenance of larger social networks, and thereby perhaps have helped facilitate the demographic and territorial expansion of modern humans
Websites and Resources: Modern Human Origins modernhumanorigins.com ; Talk Origins Index talkorigins.org/origins ; Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History amnh.org/exhibitions ; Time Space Chart Hominid Fossils Pictures msu.edu/~heslips ; Smithsonian Human Origins Program humanorigins.si.edu ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site becominghuman.org ; Human Evolution Images evolution-textbook.org ;Hominid Species talkorigins.org ; Institute of Human Origins iho.asu.edu ; Paleoanthropology Link talkorigins.org ; Britannica Human Evolution britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/275670/human-evolution ;Modern Human Origins modernhumanorigins.com ; Human Evolution handprint.com ; Paleoanthropology and Evolution Links unipv.it/webbio/dfpaleoa ;National Geographic Atlas of the Human Journey genographic.nationalgeographic.com/genographic/atlas ; Yale Peabody Museum peabody.yale.edu/exhibits/fossils ; Humin Origins Washington Sate University wsu.edu/gened/learn-modules ; Book: The Human Evolution Source Book
Book: The Singing Neanderthals: The origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen (Harvard University Press, 2006). The title perhaps needs to be changed as there is no firm evidence that Neanderthals were musical.
Websites and Resources on Early Modern Man: Evolution of Modern Humans anthro.palomar.edu ; Virtual Ice Age creswell-crags.org.uk/Explore/virtually-the-ice-age ; Stone Age Tools aerobiologicalengineering.com
World’s Oldest Flutes Slovenia, Germany and France
In June 2009, scientists from the University of Tübingen in Germany revealed the oldest-known musical instrument—a thin, 35,000-year-old, bird-bone flute—found in in southwestern Germany. Dating to around the time the earliest sculptures and cave painting appeared, the flute was made from a hollow bone from a griffon vulture. The preserved portion is about 8.5 inches long and includes the end of the instrument into which the musician blew. The maker carved two deep, V-shaped notches there, and four fine lines near the finger holes. The other end appears to have been broken off; judging by the typical length of these bird bones, two or three inches are missing. [Source: John Noble Wilford, New York Times, June 24, 2009]
Archaeologists discovered the five-finger-hole, bird-bone flute and two fragments of ivory flutes in the fall of 2008 at Hohle Fels Cave in the hills west of Ulm. They said, the flute was “by far the most complete of the musical instruments so far recovered.” In caves nearby a three-hole flute carved from mammoth ivory was uncovered, as well as two flutes made from the wing bones of a mute swan. [Ibid]
In an article published online by the journal Nature, Nicholas J. Conard of the University of Tübingen, in Germany, and colleagues wrote, “These finds demonstrate the presence of a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans colonized Europe.” The flutes were dated with radiocarbon dating, which can be imprecise with samples older than 30,000 years old. However the flutes and associated material were tested independently by two laboratories, in England and Germany, using different methods. Scientists said the data agreed on ages of at least 35,000 years. [Ibid]
, Many people appeared to have lived and worked in the cave where the flute was found. Dr. Conard’s team unearthed numerous stone and ivory artifacts, beautiful carvings of animals, flint-knapping debris and bones of hunted animals in the sediments with the flutes. Perhaps not coincidently just a few feet away from the flute a carved figurine of a busty, nude woman, also around 35,000 years old, was found. [Ibid]
In 2004, Conard’s discovered a the seven-inch three-hole ivory flute at the Geissenklösterle cave, also near Ulm. At the time he said southern Germany “may have been one of the places where human culture originated.” Friedrich Seeberger, a German specialist in ancient music, reproduced the ivory flute in wood and said it produced a range of notes comparable in many ways to modern flutes. “The tones are quite harmonic,” he told the New York Times. A replica of the vulture bone flute had not been made as 2009 but the archaeologists said they expected the five-hole flute with its larger diameter to “provide a comparable, or perhaps greater, range of notes and musical possibilities.” [Ibid]
Other Old Flutes
Music made by ancient Chinese flutes A number of flutes said to be even older than German ones have been found but the dates attached to them are not regarded as firm and reliable. Flutes made of animal bone found in France and Slovenia have been dated to 53,000 years ago. Scientists have speculated that they may have been made by Neanderthals and suggested their design was so sophisticated that been hundreds of thousands of flutes had to have been made before to get the design right. Patricia Gray, a professional keyboardist and the artistic director of the National Musical Arts, told the New York Times, "What you immediately hear when you play one of these flutes is the beauty of their sound, They make pure and rather haunting sounds in very specific scales.”
Among the ancient flutes that have been found are a flute-like object made from a cave bear femur, found in northwestern Slovenia in 1995, dated at 43,000 to 82,000 years old; and a bone pipe from Wurttenberg, Germany, dated to be 38,000 years old. An Aurignacian period (about 40,000 to 28,000 years ago) period flute made from a naturally hollow bird bone with at least three finger holes was found at the site of Isturitz in southwestern France. At least dozen similar flutes have been dated to the Gravettian cultural period (roughly 28,000 to 22,000 years ago). The flutes played a scale similar to that played today.
Some scientists believe the flutes were made to produce accompanying music for cave paintings. In one experiment, researchers found that in caves where art has been discovered the rooms with the best acoustics were the ones that housed paintings. One cave with images of bison and horses produced an echo when hands were clapped that sounded like a stampede. A room that dampened sound contained stealthy creatures such as panthers.
Early Flutes in China
The oldest playable flute, a seven-holed instrument carved 8000 years ago from the hollow wing bone of a large bird, was unearthed in Jiahu, an archeological site in the Yellow River Valley in central China. The flutes were found in the late 1980s but were not described in the West until 1999. [Source: Zhang Juzhong and Lee Yun Kuem, Natural History magazine, September 2005]
Thirty-three flutes—including around 20 intact flutes and several broken or fragmented ones and several more unfinished ones—have been found at Jiahu. All are between seven and 10 inches in length and are made of wing bones from the red-crowned crane, a bird that stands five feet tall and has a wing span of eight feet and is famous for its courtship dance. It seems plausible that ancient flutes were also made from bamboo. Ancient myths described bamboo flutes but no ancient ones have been found in all likelihood because bamboo decays more quickly than bone and doesn’t survive burial for thousands of years like bone does.
The flutes were cut, smoothed at the ends, polished and finally drilled with a row of holes on one side. One of the broken flutes was repaired by drilling fourteen tiny holes along the breakage lines and then tying the section together with string.
The flutes have between five and eight holes. They play in the so-called pentatonic scale, in which octaves are divided into five notes—the basis of many kinds of music, including Chinese folk music and rock n' roll. The fact that the flute has a scale indicates that its original players played music rather than just single notes.
The flutes were probably used in some kind of ceremonial capacity but may have been played for entertainment. The flutes were found along with evidence early wine making (See Below), which suggests that the people who played them could have been a festive bunch.
Types of Flutes in China
Archeologists have divided the flutes found in Jiahu into three groups: 1) the early phase, those between 9,000 and 8,600 years old; 2) the middle phase, those between 8,600 and 8,200 years old; 3) the late phase, those between 8,200 and 7,800 years old.
Only two flutes from the early phase were recovered, both from the grave of an adult male. One has five holes and can produce six distinct pitches. The other has five holes and can produce seven distinct pitches, including two notes repeated an octave apart.
About two dozen flutes from the middle phase were unearthed. Fifteen are intact or could be reconstructed. One has two holes. The others all have seven holes and can play eight pitches. Despite some difference in the range of pitches the intervals between them are similar.
Seven flutes from the late phase were unearthed. One of them can still played. These have eight holes and pitch intervals close together and are capable of a variety of melodic structures. A flute from the late phase found 80 miles from Jiahu in Zhinghanzhai has tens holes, staggered on two parallel lines with the intervals between them close to half steps.
Notes from the playable flute have been recorded and analyzed. The flute produces a rough scale covering the modern octave, beginning close to the second A above middle C, and appears to have been tuned—a tiny hole was drilled near the seventh hole, with effect of raising that hole's tone from roughly G-sharp to A, completing the octave.
Image Sources: AFP, Natural History magazine
Text Sources: Mostly from National Geographic articles. I’ve gone through them all since around 1963 or so. Also the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); History of Warfare by John Keegan (Vintage Books); History of Art by H.W. Janson (Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated March 2011