The oldest musical instrument in the world

Researchers discovered an ivory flute at least 30 000 years old in a cave of the Swabian Alb. Back at a time when Neanderthals and humans lived in Europe and the Ice Age ruled at the same time, our ancestors had already developed a definite inclination to make music. This is demonstrated by the spectacular discovery of an 18.7 centimetre long flute made of mammoth ivory, which was presented to the public by scientists from the University of Tübingen. The head of the research team, Professor Nicholas Conrad, estimated the age of the flute, which had been found in the Geißenklösterle cave near Blaubeuren in the Swabian Jura, to be considerably older than 30,000 years. A total of 16 datings with the radiocarbon method had resulted in measurements between 30,000 and 36,000 years. This makes the small flute from the Swabian Alb the oldest musical instrument ever discovered.

In 1990 researchers had already found two similarly old flutes in the same cave. These had been made from the bones of swans, which was comparatively simple because these bones are naturally hollow. To make a flute out of a massive ivory is a technical masterpiece. Even most contemporaries would fail- despite the best equipment with modern tools.

The ice-age inhabitants of the Swabian Alb carved the ivory flute from two halves, which were first worked out perfectly and accurately, before they were tied together airtight at a precisely manufactured hem and glued with birch pitch. The researchers are convinced that it was indeed possible to make music with the archaic flutes. From their dimensions and the distances between the holes it is even possible to calculate which distances successive notes have: They were thirds, which also sound good to our ears. The ivory flute might have sounded much deeper and clearer than the hollow bone flutes. The three flutes from Geißenklösterle prove that music already played an important role in the life of our glacial ancestors - otherwise we would not have put so much effort into making the instruments. And this is not only true for the Alb. In the French Pyrenees, a flute about 28,000 years old has already been discovered, and in China, some years ago, 9,000 years old flutes were found.

The discovery of the Tübingen researchers can be described as particularly happy, because the 31 fragments from which the world's oldest musical instrument could now be assembled had already been excavated and misjudged in the 1970s. The three flutes will be on display at the Württembergisches Landesmuseum in Stuttgart until 30 January 2005.

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