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Archaeologists have discovered what may be the oldest musical instruments ever found--bird-bone and ivory flutes that they say are at least 35,000 years old. The flutes' design and studies of other artifacts from the site suggest that music was an integral part of human life far earlier than first thought.
Before now, the earliest known musical instruments--found in Austria and France--were thought to be younger than 30,000 years old. With the discovery of the flutes, scientists now say that musical traditions existed at the same time that modern humans permanently colonized Europe. Last summer, archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen in Germany unearthed the flutes and several other artifacts in Hohle Fels and Vogelherd caves in southern Germany. Conard made headlines in May when he reported discovering a voluptuous female figurine carved from mammoth ivory (ScienceNOW , 13 May 2009) in Hohle Fels.
The best-preserved flute was made from the wing bone of a Griffon vulture. The instrument is close to 22 centimeters long and has five finger holes and V-shaped notches on one end that likely served as the mouthpiece. There are also several thin lines carved near each finger hole, which might have marked where each opening should be made. The researchers also found fragments of a second bone flute, made from a swan wing bone, that is smaller and has just three finger holes. The researchers made a replica of this flute out of wood and played it. The instrument produced a range of notes similar to many modern flutes. The remaining flute fragments found at the site are made of mammoth ivory. Scientists dated the artifacts using radiocarbon analysis. They are described in a paper  published online in Nature today.
Alongside these artifacts, researchers found bone and ivory tools characteristic of the Upper Paleolithic Period, 45,000 to 20,000 years ago. During this time, modern humans settled in Europe, replacing Neandertals. The presence of the flutes, figurines, and other symbolic artifacts suggests that these first modern humans adopted cultures and behaviors similar to modern society, Conard says.
"The flutes were likely used in all kinds of social settings," Conard says. "You might think these artifacts would be discarded in a special place, but in general, they were just lying there with everything else, which leads me to believe they were part of everyday life."
Archaeologists have long assumed that society became more culturally modern with the advent of agriculture. But Conard's discoveries of artifacts that predate the introduction of agriculture, as well as the unearthing of ceramic figurines by other research groups in recent years, disproves that, says archaeologist April Nowell of the University of Victoria in Canada. "When you see the first ceramics were in fact these figurines and not vessels for grain and you have this complex musical tradition starting right a the very beginning of the Upper Paleolithic," she says, "you begin to understand that these people lived socially rich and complex lives."