Prehistoric vulture bone flute discovery

Image of the bone flute courtesy of H. Jensen, University of TubingenBy Katherine Harmon in 60-Second Science Blog:

Stone Age jams: Humans playing the flute for at least 35,000 years, no word yet on sax

Carved flutes dating back some 35,000 years were discovered during a dig last summer at an Upper Paleolithic site in southwestern Germany, making them among—if not the—oldest documented musical instruments, reports a study published today in Nature (Scientific American is part of the Nature Publishing Group).

These flutes, from the Early Aurignacian period, show that there was “a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans colonized Europe,” write the study authors from the University of Tübingen. The most complete, five-holed flute is made of bone from griffon vultures and is about 8.6 inches (21.8 centimeters) long. Other flute fragments are ivory.

Precise dating of objects older than 30,000 years has been problematic, and although radiocarbon dating has pegged the flutes to at least 35,000 years ago, their placement in the sediment layers in the Hohle Fels Cave suggest that they might be 40,000 years old.

The authors and other scholars assert that “the existence of complex musical instruments [is] an indication of fully modern behavior and advanced symbolic communication,” which would strengthen the argument that these early Europeans were already relatively culturally advanced. In fact, the bone flute was found just 28 inches (70 centimeters) away from a Venus figurine carved from mammoth ivory, reported earlier this year, which suggests that, “the inhabitants of the sites played these musical instruments in diverse and cultural contexts.”

Ancient humans may not have been the only ones piping Paleolithic tunes, however. In the 1990s, researchers uncovered bones in Slovenia that could have been Neandertal flutes. Subsequent analysis, however, showed that the holes might have been made by a gnawing animal instead.

Modern day flautists (and the rest of us) may have to wait before tunes of the past are blowing their way. “We have not yet been able to produce a replica of the flute,” the authors write. However, they expect it “to provide a … range of notes and musical possibilities.”

Fire Used to Make Better Tools 75,000 Years Ago: here.

University of Bristol archaeologist Joao Zilhao, who led the project, told me about some other interesting discoveries he and his team made about Neanderthals. One concerns how they harvested shellfish for consumption: here.

13 thoughts on “Prehistoric vulture bone flute discovery

  1. 29 June 2009
    The first Europeans were cannibals

    The remains of the ‘first Europeans’ discovered at an archaeological site in northern Spain have revealed that these prehistoric men were cannibals who particularly liked the flesh of children. “We know that they practiced cannibalism,” said Jose Maria Bermudez de Castro, one of the co-directors of the Atapuerca project, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
    A study of the remains revealed that they turned to cannibalism to feed themselves and not as part of a ritual, that they ate their rivals after killing them, mostly children and adolescents. “It is the first well-documented case of cannibalism in the history of humanity, which does not mean that it is the oldest,” he said. The remains discovered in the caves “appeared scattered, broken, fragmented, mixed with other animals such as horses, deer, rhinoceroses, all kinds of animals caught in hunting” and eaten by humans, he said. “This gives us an idea of cannibalism as a type gastronomy, and not as a ritual.”
    The Atapuerca caves were first discovered in the late 19th century, when a tunnel was blasted through the mountain for a railway line. “But at the time in Spain, there was not enough scientific knowledge to begin research,” said the other co-director, Eudald Carbonell. The first excavations did not take place until 1978, then “in 1984, we found 150 human remains. In 1992, they found a complete intact skeleton, and two years later, they discovered remains dating back more than 800,000 years. Those remains probably correspond to the first humans who reached Europe, known as Homo antecessor, after the Latin word for pioneer or explorer.
    Homo antecessor, who lived before Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens, probably came to the caves of Atapuerca after a long migration from Africa and through the Middle East, northern Italy and France. It is a particularly good site for human settlement, at the confluence of two rivers with a comfortable climate and rich in fauna and flora, de Castro said. They found water and food in abundance, could hunt wild boar, horses, deer, “which means that they did not practice cannibalism through a lack of food. They killed their rivals and used the meat,” he said. “We have also discovered two levels that contain cannibalised remains, which means that it was not a one-off thing, but continued through time,” he said. “Another interesting aspect … is that most of the 11 individuals that we have identified” as victims “were children or adolescents. We think that there are also two young adults including a female, which indicates that they killed the base of the demographic pyramid of the group.”

    Sources: AFP, (24 June 2009)


  2. Stone Age humans liked their burgers in a bun

    * 20:00 18 October 2010 by Sonia Van Gilder Cooke
    * Magazine issue 2783. Subscribe and save
    * For similar stories, visit the Food and Drink Topic Guide

    Forget the idea that hunter-gatherers lived on low-carb meat diets. Palaeolithic mammoth burgers were eaten with a bun.

    Anna Revedin of the Italian Institute of Prehistory and Early History in Florence and colleagues analysed the wear-marks and traces of plants on 30,000-year-old grindstones found in Italy, Russia and the Czech Republic.

    This showed that they had been used as mortars and pestles to grind plants like cat’s tail and fern roots, which packed a starchy, high-energy punch. The find suggests that Stone Age humans across Europe even knew how to make flour – a complex process involving harvesting roots, then drying, grinding and finally cooking them to make them digestible. Revedin says the development of flour may have helped hunter-gatherers survive changes in the climate, from chilly winters to parched summers.

    The reason Palaeolithic humans were thought to have lived solely on wild meat, says Revedin, is that previous plant evidence was washed away by overzealous archaeologists as they cleaned the tools at dig sites. “This is the first time anybody has tried to find vegetable material on them,” she says.

    Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1006993107


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