Saturday, May 26, 2012

Geißenklösterle flute

Since the 1st archaeological exploration of Geißenklösterle cave (photo of the entrance here) in 1963, it has offered several superlatives, including the oldest sculpture of a human being, but the reanalysis of objects discovered in the early 1970s adds another claim to fame. It has now been confirmed that the cave in Blaubeuren, Baden-Württemberg, Germany, yielded up flutes dating to 42,000 years ago (5,000 years earlier than previously thought), making them the world's oldest musical instruments. Researchers from Oxford and Tübingen retested the flutes and published the new radiocarbon dates in the Journal of Human Evolution. Two of the flutes were fashioned from swan bones (photo here), which are already hollow, so they are considered relatively unsophisticated. (A replica of the bird bone flutes was made and can be heard here.) But the 3rd had been carved from mammoth ivory (images above), which the artisan would have had to split, hollow out, and then glue back together with a perfectly airtight seam. Though it was made of the highest quality material available at the time, it was found in 31 pieces. When reconstructed, it had 3 finger holes, measured 18.7cm long, and would have been capable of playing relatively complex melodies. "This 3rd flute is like a Rolls Royce compared with a Hyundai," described Nicholas Conard from the University of Tübingen. Friedrich Seeberger, an expert in prehistoric music, made a replica in elder wood and commented, "The tones are quite harmonic," but hopes to make an even more faithful replica out of mammoth ivory. Carbon dating expert Thomas Higham of the University of Oxford notes that although the flutes are the earliest yet discovered, they do not pinpoint how old music is as a technology: "We just don't know....The problem is that we have virtually no other evidence for this behavior archaeologically to be able to comment more confidently. There are other musical instruments like these, for example at Isturitz in the French Pyrenees, but whether these are the same age is not known. There are later examples, from the Gravettian, Solutrean and Magdalenian periods, but from this period, nothing else. It seems unlikely that we have the oldest examples. The likelihood is that this behavior is older, but by how much is a guess."
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