Thursday 4 February 2010
35,000 years ago, humans in what’s now Germany were making sophisticated flutes from the bones of griffon vultures.
The search for the origins of civilization has taken archaeologists to less pleasant places than Swabia. Nestled between France, Switzerland, and Bavaria, the German region is the heart of Baden-Wuerttemburg, a state that markets itself as a centre for creativity and innovation. It’s no idle boast. Hundreds of small high-tech firms dot the region. Giants such as Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Zeiss are all based in the gleaming, modern state capital, Stuttgart.
More than 35,000 years ago, our ancestors living in present-day south-western Germany were playing sophisticated music, according to University of Tübingen archaeologist Nicholas Conard. In June he announced that he and his colleagues had unearthed an ancient bone flute in Hohle Fels, a cave in the Swabian Mountains. The sound produced by the flute «is almost identical to tones of the major scale played on today’s flute», says Nikolaj Tarasov, a recorder specialist at the Music University of Karlsruhe in Germany. The five-holed instrument — carved from the bone of a griffon vulture — might be capable of expressing greater harmonic variety than the modern-day flute, he says.
Conard’s group discovered fragments of three ivory flutes in their 2008 digs. Four other bone and ivory flutes were previously found in the same area. Collectively, these are regarded as the oldest known musical instruments. The researchers conjecture that music was important in the geographic expansion and cultural development of humans during the Upper Palaeolithic era. «We can now state that our ancestors had a developed culture», Tarasov says. «Not only were they surviving, but they had time to do something that required superior skill.»