The Stone Age Musicians

Jun 1, 2012 By Deepa Gopal
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What was the first musical instrument? If you guessed human voice or using hands as percussion instruments, you are perhaps right.

But when did man actually start creating instruments specifically for the purpose of music? Believe it or not, 45,000 years ago!

In caves along Germany's Danube River, archeologists have discovered flutes carved out of bird bones and mammoth tusks. With five finger-holes and a V-shaped mouth, these prehistoric flutes look very similar to their modern-day versions. In these very same caves, researchers have found cave art and the earliest known statue of a woman made with ivory. 

Who were these artists?

Radiocarbon dating of bone samples found in the same layer as the musical instruments reveal that these settlements belong to the Aurignacian culture of the Upper Paleolithic period.

The Stone Age, when man was a hunter-gatherer, is divided into three periods, the last of which is the Upper Paleolithic period. It lasted from 45,000 to 10,000 years ago after which we saw the rise of agriculture as man settled down into communities.

There were many cultures or races during this Upper Paleolithic period -- one of which were the Aurignacians. They lived in small pockets in present-day Germany, France, Austria and Spain. While this culture saw advances in tool-making, its characteristic feature was the sudden explosion in arts. The spectacular cave paintings that we wrote about here are from this period. 

The rise of the flute

Researchers speculate that flutes may have been used in hunting and ancient rituals, but most importantly, it would have brought people together around stone age campfires.

The earliest mention of the flute is in a Chinese poem from 9th century B.C. Flutes were also used by Sumerians and Egyptians thousands of years ago. Following the fall of the Roman Empire, flutes almost disappeared from Europe until the Crusades brought Europeans into contact with the Arabs. It is believed that the flute was introduced into western Europe at the end of the 2nd century.

The first usage of the word 'flute' is thought to have been in France during the 12th century. They were one of the most popular instruments of the Italian musical scene throughout the 16th century and it is said King Henry VIII had a large collection of flutes. The flutes of today owe their design to Theobald Boehm, a goldsmith, and a flute-maker, who changed the spacing between finger-holes to generate precise notes. 

If you are familiar with a wind instrument or are in your school band, you realize how difficult it is to play the flute. The fact that it was invented 45,000 years ago is mind-blowing!

Courtesy Science Daily, Wikipedia