Ancient Flutes - Archaeological Evidence of Prehistoric Music Making

How Long Have Humans Been Playing Flutes? At Least 43,000 Years!!

Boy fluting in reed marshes
Boy fluting in reed marshes. Getty Images / BJI / Blue Jean Images

Ancient flutes made of animal bone or carved from mammoth (extinct elephant) ivory are among the earliest examples of the use of ancient music--and one of the key recognized measures of behavioral modernity for modern human beings.

The earliest forms of ancient flutes were made to be played like a modern recorder, that is held vertically. They were most often constructed from the hollow bones of animals, particularly bird wing bones.

Bird bones are extremely well-suited for making flutes, as they are already hollow, thin and strong, so that they may be perforated without too much danger of fracturing. Later forms, carved from mammoth ivory, involve a greater grasp of the technology, including carving out the tubular form into two pieces and then fitting the pieces together with some adhesive, perhaps bitumen.

Oldest Possible Ancient Flute

The oldest possible bone flute discovered to date comes from a Middle Paleolithic site in Slovenia, the Divje Babe I site, a Neanderthal occupation site with Mousterian artifacts. The flute came from a stratigraphic level dated to 43,000 +/- 700 RCYBP, and it was made on a juvenile cave bear femur.

The Divje Babe I "flute", if that's what it is, has two roughly circular holes punctured into it, and three more damaged potential holes. The layer has other gnawed cave bear bones, and some detailed scholarly research into the bone's taphonomy--that is to say, the use wear and markings on the bone--led some scholars to conclude that this "flute" likely resulted from carnivore gnawing.

Hohle Fels Flutes

The Swabian Jura is an area in Germany where ivory figurines and debris from their production have been identified in numbers from the Upper Paleolithic levels. Three sites--Hohle Fels, Vogelherd, and Geißenklösterle--have produced flute fragments, all dated between about 30,000-40,000 years ago.

In 2008, one nearly complete flute and two other flute fragments were discovered at the Hohle Fels Upper Paleolithic site, located in the Swabian Jura. The longest of these was made on the wing bone of a griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus). Discovered in 12 pieces and reassembled, the bone measures 21.8 centimeters (8.6 inches) long and about 8 millimeters (~1/3 of an inch) in diameter. The Hohle Fels flute has five finger holes and the blowing end has been deeply notched.

Two other fragmented flutes found at Hohle Fels are made of ivory. The longest fragment is 11.7 mm (.46 in) in length, and oval (4.2x1.7 mm, or .17x.07 in) in cross section; the other is 21.1 mm (.83 in) and also oval (7.6 mm x 2.5 mm, or .3x.1 in) in cross section.

Other Flutes

Two other sites from the Swabian Jura in Germany have produced ancient flutes. Two flutes--one bird bone and one made up of ivory fragments--have been recovered from the Aurignacian levels of the Vogelherd site. The Geißenklösterle site excavations have recovered three more flutes, one from a swan's wing bone, one from a possible swan wing bone, and one from mammoth ivory.

A total of 22 bone flutes have been identified at the Isturitz site in the French Pyrenees, most from later Upper Paleolithic proveniences, circa 20,000 years bp.

The Jiahu site, a Neolithic Peiligang culture site in China dating between ca. 7000 and 6000 BC, contained several bone flutes.

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