Thirty-five thousand years on, and we’re still blowing across tubes

Paleolithic bird bone flute from Hohle Fels (image: H Jensen/Universität Tübingen)
Palaeolithic bird bone flute from Hohle Fels (image: H Jensen/Universität Tübingen)

Archaeological research published a few weeks ago shows that early modern humans were entertaining themselves with flute music as early as 35,000 years ago. I’ve only just got around to reading the Nature paper by Tübingen prehistorians Nicholas Conard, Maria Maline and Susanne Münzel, and am most glad I did. It’s fascinating stuff.

For some time it has been thought that Neanderthal humans were musical. Until now we have lacked evidence for musical instruments in the Middle Palaeolithic, but Conard and his colleagues found flutes made from bird bone near the site of their famous mammoth ivory Venus figurine in the cave of Hohle Fels in Swabia. The Hohle Fels flutes and Venus provide convincing evidence that early modern humans in Europe possessed a developed artistic culture.

Flutes are simple instruments, in terms of both design and physics, and it’s interesting to compare and contrast flutes which are tens of thousands of years old with the highly-engineered specimens of today. So here goes…

Modern alto flute with wooden headjoint (image: Francis Sedgemore)
Modern alto flute with wooden headjoint (image: Francis Sedgemore)

The second picture is of my silver Altus alto flute, with a custom-made wooden headjoint by London-based flutemaker Robert Bigio. The modern alto flute may be mechanically complex, but apart from its greater size and deeper tone it is little different from the bird bone flutes of Hohle Fels. How’s that for historical continuity?

Further reading

“New flutes document the earliest musical tradition in southwestern Germany”, Conard et al., Nature (2009)