ArticlesNo. 97, Spring 2014

Voice and Instrument at the Origins of Music


During the summer of 2008, archaeologists uncovered some remnants of musical prehistory in the caves of Hohle Fels, Germany. There, among burnt animal bones and flint–knapping debris, they found fragments of three flutes (Conard, Malina, and Münzel 2009). One was remarkably complete. Tis delicate instrument, discovered in twelve pieces, had been fashioned from a vulture’s wing bone. It was thirty–four centimeters long (roughly the length of a piccolo), with several finger holes and a notched mouthpiece (like the Japanese shakuhachi and other end–blown flutes; see Figure 1). Te other flutes at the site were less complete but represented more complex manufacturing. They were made from pieces of mammoth tusk that had been split, hollowed out, and then rejoined. Yet headlines about the Hohle Fels flutes focused on neither their present condition nor their refined construction. Instead journalists and scholars emphasized the artifacts’ age. These flutes were more than thirty–five thousand years old—the earliest musical instruments then known.1 Incidentally, one of the earliest examples of figurative art, an ivory sculpture called the “Venus of Hohle Fels,” was found less than a meter away from the bone flute (Conard 2009). Together these artifacts give compelling evidence for musical and artistic practices in the Upper Paleolithic Era. Writing and the wheel, by contrast, would not appear until almost thirty thousand years later, during the early Bronze Age (that is, around the fourth millennium BCE).

  1. Reports about the Hohle Fels flutes in the popular press include Allen 2009, Devlin 2009, and Ghosh 2009. Tough an older bone artifact was once thought to be a Neanderthal flute (see Kunej and Turk 2000), microscopic analysis reveals that its holes were not manufactured by humans but were produced by carnivore teeth (d’Errico and Villa 1997; and d’Errico and Lawson 2006). On more recent dating of musical artifacts, see Higham et al. 2012.