Music for cavemen
Posted: Wednesday, June 24, 2009 2:45 PM by Alan Boyle
Daniel Maurer / AP
Click for audio: The University of Tubingen's Nicholas Conard holds an ancient
bone flute during a news conference. Click on the image to hear music played on
a reconstructed flute, courtesy of Wulf Hein and the University of Tubingen.
Scientists say they've found what they consider to be the earliest handcrafted musical instrument in a cave in southwest Germany, less than a yard away from the oldest-known carving of a human. The flute fragments as well as the ivory figurine of a "prehistoric Venus" date back more than 35,000 years, the researchers report.
The findings, published online today by the journal Nature, suggest not only that cavemen and cavewomen could rock the house, but that musical jam sessions may have helped modern humans prevail over their Neanderthal cousins.
"The bottom-line issues are demographics, but behind the demographics are other factors," said Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tubingen and the Nature paper's lead author.
Researchers know that modern humans prevailed over Neanderthals in Europe 20,000 to 35,000 years ago, and that the principal factors behind the Neanderthals' disappearance probably included culture and climate as well as diet. Conard and his colleagues - Maria Malina of the Heidelberg Academy of Science and Susanne Munzel of the University of Tubingen - argue that the musical tradition fostered by Homo sapiens may have contributed by bonding communities more closely together.
"Modern humans seemed to have had much larger social networks," Conard told me today. That networking may have helped facilitate "the demographic and territorial expansion of modern humans relative to culturally more conservative and demographically more isolated Neanderthal populations," he and his colleagues wrote.
The fact that multiple musical instruments turned up in the same area, not far from other artistic artifacts, strengthens the argument that Paleolithic humans developed a relatively rich culture, the researchers say.
Four flutes found
In all, researchers report finding the fragments of four flutes at two excavations in an area of southwestern Germany known as Swabia. Three of the sets of fragments were carved from mammoth ivory, but the real prize is a nearly complete flute hollowed out from the bone of a griffon vulture. That specimen was found in the Hohle Fels cave, just 28 inches (70 centimeters) away from the spot where the prehistoric Venus (or, as some wags have put it, "prehistoric porn") was found.
The figurine's discovery was announced in May, but both finds were actually made last September. "First came the Venus, and a couple of weeks later came the flutes," Conard said.
When assembled, the vulture-bone flute is about eight and a half inches long (21.8 centimeters long) and boasts five finger holes. There are fine lines cut into the bone around the holes, suggesting that the flute's maker was calibrating the holes' placement to produce the nicest tones. One end of the flute is cut into a V shape, and the musician probably blew into that side of the flute. The researchers assume that an inch or two of the flute's far end is missing.
You can hear what the flute might have sounded like in this MP3 audio clip.
Conard noted that the fragments of eight flutes have now been found in Swabian geological deposits dating back 30,000 to 40,000 years - deposits known as the Aurignacian layer. Radiocarbon dating indicated that the newly found fragments fit into that time frame, and other dating methods led the researchers to conclude that the flutes were more than 35,000 years old.
They said there were no "convincing" claims that any older musical instruments have ever been discovered.
Reviewing the evidence
Actually, other researchers have pointed to a bear-bone fragment that is about 50,000 years old and appears to have the finger holes for a flute. I wrote about that particular specimen nine years ago in a story on the "sounds of science." But there's still a controversy over whether the holes were made by a Neanderthal or by a bone-chomping scavenger.
"No [outside] scholar who has ever studied it has ever confirmed it's a flute," Conard told me. The scientists who discovered the bear bone have stood by their story, however.
This bear bone specimen was found in Slovenia in 1995. Is it a 50,000-year-old flute? Such claims have spawned controversy.
Conard said his team's conclusions about the flute found in the Hohle Fels cave are on much more solid ground. "It's a totally different situation here," he said. "We're dealing with finds that have all kinds of indications of cutting with tools and polishing."
The research also meshes with the story told by other finds like the prehistoric Venus. Taken together, the evidence points to a flowering of culture that took place around 35,000 B.C. Could it be that prehistoric partygoers brought their flutes as well as their figurines to the same cave rave?
"It's possible," Conard said. "Let's put it this way: If that were the case, you would find the situation that we have. On the other hand, we can't be sure how much time is represented by the [geological] layer. Let's say that your grandfather played the flute, and your great-granddaughter made the Venus. But it's got to be the same general time period."