Aurignacian Humans enjoyed Music; Upper Palaeolithic flutes found in Germany

Excavations in the summer of 2008 at the sites of Hohle Fels and Vogelherd in Germany produced new evidence for Palaeolithic music in the form of the remains of one nearly complete bone flute and isolated small fragments of three ivory flutes. On 17 September, an excavator uncovered the most significant of these finds, the bone flute, in the basal Aurignacian deposits of archaeological horizon Vb at Hohle Fels Cave in the Ach Valley, 20 km west of Ulm. The flute was recovered in 12 pieces. The team documented 11 fragments in situ, and one was found during water screening. The fragments were distributed over a vertical distance of 3 cm over a horizontal area of about 10 cm by 20 cm. This flute, which we designate Hohle Fels flute 1, is by far the most complete of the musical instruments so far recovered from the caves of Swabia. The flute lay in an 8-cm-thick deposit of clayey silt with limestone clasts that directly overlies a nearly sterile deposit of red-brown, silty clay, separating the basal Aurignacian from the underlying Middle Palaeolithic deposits of archaeological horizon VI.


Bone flute from Hohle Fels archaeological horizon Vb

The maker of the flute carved the instrument from the radius of a griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus). This species has a wing span of between 230 and 265 cm and provides bones ideal for large flutes.

The preserved portion of flute 1 from Hohle Fels has a length of 21.8 cm and a diameter of about 8mm.

The surfaces of the flute and the structure of the bone are in excellent condition and reveal many details about the manufacture of the flute. The flute has five finger holes. The maker carved two deep, V-shaped notches into one end of the instrument, presumably to form the proximal end of the flute, into which the musician blew. This end of the flute corresponds to the proximal end of the radius. The other end of the flute is broken in the middle of the most distal of the five finger holes. Several centimetres of the flute are missing from this end. As many as four very fine lines were incised near the finger holes. These precisely carved markings probably reflect measurements used to indicate where the finger holes were to be carved using chipped-stone tools. Only the partly preserved, and most distal, of the five finger holes lacks such markings.

The smaller, three-holed bone flute, made from the radius of a swan, that was recovered from the Aurignacian deposits of archaeological horizon II at the nearby cave of Geißenklösterle can be played by blowing obliquely into its proximal end to produce four basic notes. Three additional overtones can be produced by blowing more sharply into the flute. Given that the three-holed flute from Geißenklösterle produces a range of notes comparable to many modern kinds of flute, we expect flute 1 from Hohle Fels to provide a comparable, or perhaps greater, range of notes and musical possibilities. The larger diameter of the bone flute from Hohle Fels would have made its tone deeper than that of the bone flute from Geißenklösterle, and closer to that documented experimentally from a reconstruction of the ivory flute from archaeological horizon II at Geißenklösterle.

The 2008 excavations at Hohle Fels also recovered two small fragments of what are probably two ivory flutes from the basal Aurignacian. Both pieces of worked ivory have been hollowed out and preserve striations from their manufacture on their internal and external surfaces. The fragment of flute 2 includes a portion of a finger hole. The fragment of flute 3 preserves a series of incised lines on the convex outer surface and nine small notches along one of the edges. The greater thickness and larger dimensions of flute 3 relative to flute 2 indicate that the two finds are probably not from the same instrument.

Excavators at Vogelherd in the Lone Valley, 25km northwest of Ulm, recovered an isolated fragment of another ivory flute, which we designate Vogelherd flute 2.

In 2005, we recovered three fragments of a bone flute at Vogelherd, designated Vogelherd flute 1.

The characteristics of these three fragments of ivory are known only from the ivory flute from the upper Aurignacian deposits of Geißenklösterle archaeological horizon II. The technology for making an ivory flute is much more complicated than that for making a flute from a bird bone. It requires forming the rough shape along the long axis of a naturally curved piece of mammoth ivory, splitting it open at the interface of the cementum and dentine or along one of the other bedding plains in the ivory, carefully hollowing out the halves, carving the holes and then rejoining the halves of the flute with air-tight seals along the seams that connected the halves of the flute. The ivory flute from Geißenklösterle preserves dozens of finely carved notches along the edges of the two halves to facilitate binding and sealing the flute. Although thousands of pieces of ivory-working debris and hundreds of ivory artefacts have been recovered from the Aurignacian deposits of Hohle Fels, Vogelherd and Geißenklösterle, only the flute fragments have the form described above and preserve a hollowed-out convex morphology, finger holes and series of notches along the edge of the long axis.

The three flutes from Hohle Fels come from clearly documented archaeological contexts relating to the earliest Upper Palaeolithic occupation at the site.

The flutes from Hohle Fels pre-date 35,000 calendar years ago.

The stratigraphic situation suggests that the flutes from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels date from the initial Upper Palaeolithic settlement of the region, about 40,000 calendar years ago. These flutes pre-date the two bone flutes and the ivory flute from the upper Aurignacian at nearby Geißenklösterle. The fragments of an ivory and a bone flute from Vogelherd are from reworked contexts, but the vast majority of the finds from the site are from secure Aurignacian contexts.

Numerous radiocarbon dates from the Aurignacian at Vogelherd fall between 30 and 36 kyr ago.

When the discovery of two bone flutes from the Swabian Aurignacian was reported in 1995, these finds seemed to be exceptional and unique. The subsequent discovery of additional evidence for flutes from two more sites brings the total to four bone flutes and four ivory flutes. We can now conclude that music played an important role in Aurignacian life in the Ach and Lone valleys of southwestern Germany. Most of these flutes are from archaeological contexts containing an abundance of organic and lithic artefacts, hunted fauna and burnt bone. This evidence suggests that the inhabitants of the sites played these musical instruments in diverse social and cultural contexts and that flutes were discarded with many other forms of occupational debris.

The appearance of a musical tradition in the Aurignacian accompanied the development of early figurative art and numerous innovations, including a wide array of new forms of personal ornaments and new lithic and organic technologies.

[Source: “New flutes document the earliest musical tradition in southwestern Germany”, by Nicholas J. Conard, Maria Malina & Susanne C. Münzel, 2009]


Fragments of ivory flutes from Hohle Fels and Vogelherd

Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Philaretus Homerides

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