Stone-age Music: The World’s Earliest Musical Instruments

When did we first make music? Archaeological records show that humans played some kind of music as early as during the Upper Palaeolithic (old stone age) period. that’s over 40,000 years ago! Whistles and flutes made from bone have been found in many Palaeolithic caves. A particularly striking find was a flute made of bear bone discovered in a Slovenian cave in 1995 and which dates back to about 41,000 BC, older than the oldest cave paintings found there. Then, in 2012, a team from Oxford and Tubingen Universities unearthed flutes made from mammoth ivory and bird bones in a cave in southern Germany that was carbon-dated to between 43,000 and 42,000 BC, making them the oldest musical instruments known.

This bone flute, found at Hohle Fels Cave in southern Germany, is at least 42,000 years old. Credit: Jensen/University of Tubingen.

These early musical instruments, like cave paintings, played a part in community rituals. More impressively, they also served as sonar devices to provide location bearings, which of course has lifesaving importance to cave-dwellers of this period. The earliest musical instruments may look primitive, but it is from these humble beginnings that future quartets and symphonic orchestras would one day grow.

Curious about how these “primitive” flutes sound like? Then have a listen to Slovenian flutist, Ljuben Dimkaroski as he plays Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from his Ninth Symphony using a replica of the 43,000 year old flute discovered in a cave in western Slovenia in 1995. The original flute was made from the femur of a bear.

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