The beauty of the Paleolithic flutes


Marc discovers that paleolithic flutes from more than 40,000 years ago maintain their beautiful sounds.


At least 35,000 years ago, in the depths of the last ice age, the sound of music filled caves in what is now southwestern Germany.

The flutes, made of bone or ivory represent the earliest known musical instruments and provide unmistakable evidence of prehistoric music. The flutes were found in caves with the oldest Ice Age art, where also the oldest known examples of figurative art were discovered.

Music and sculpture as artistic expression have developed simultaneously among the first humans in Europe as the region is considered a key area in which various cultural innovations have developed. Experts say, besides recreation and religious ritual, music might have helped to maintain larger social networks, a competitive advantage over the Neanderthals.

In 2008, the Hohle Fels Flute was discovered in the Hohle Fels cave in Germany’s Swabian Alb. The flute is made from a vulture’s wing bone perforated with five finger holes, and dates to approximately 35,000 years ago. Several years before, two flutes made of mute swan bone and one made of woolly mammoth ivory were found in the nearby Geissenklösterle cave (approximately 8 km distance from Hohle Fels).

The team that made the Hohle Fels discovery wrote that these finds were at the time the earliest evidence of humans being engaged in musical culture. They suggested music may have helped to maintain bonds between larger groups of humans, and that this may have helped the species to expand both in numbers and in geographical range. In 2012, a fresh high-resolution carbon dating examination revealed an age of 42,000 to 43,000 years for the flutes from the Geissenklösterle cave. This suggested that those rather than the one found at Hohle Fels cave could be the oldest known musical instruments.

In an article in The Guardian from a few years ago, Tom Service wrote:

“What’s so striking about this ancient wind instrument is how familiar it looks. It’s basically an ice age penny whistle: anyone can see it’s a tool for making music, with its five finger-holes and a V-shaped notch at one end, through which a prehistoric musician would have blown.

“The sounds it makes are strikingly familiar, too. We know this thanks to Wulf Hein, an ‘experimental archeologist’ who made a replica of the instrument. (You will already be familiar with this fascinating figure if you’ve seen Werner Herzog’s 2010 movie Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the shockingly contemporary-seeming art found in the Chauvet cave in southern France.) Hein shows that the notes the flute can play form the “pentatonic scale”, the same scale that’s the basis of so many tunes we know and love today.

“Hearing this little flute, and imagining how it was used by the people who made it and played it, collapses the millennia that separate us from them. And the flute is just the tip of the ice-age iceberg. There would have been countless other – and older – instruments that have not survived, fashioned from reeds, wood, bamboo and skin, materials we still make instruments out of today. So if we can assume the deep past was full of artefacts – carvings, paintings and sculptures – then it must have been just as full of people making music together, singing and playing to one another. Back then, just as it is now, music was an essential social glue. And all the wind instruments in the world, from bamboo flutes to flageolets, owe it to little works of wonder like the Hohle Fels flute.”

I remember hearing Osho say,

“When a singer is singing, sit by the side. Feel, God is very close by. When somebody is playing on the flute, hide behind a tree and listen, and you will be able to see something, something that is not of this world, something that is of the beyond. Creativity is always from the beyond.”

Osho, The Book of Wisdom, Ch 24, Q 1

Credit to Tom Service and The Guardian


Antar Marc is an artist, coach, lecturer and writer of essays about topics of general interest.

Comments are closed.