The Oldest Instrument on Earth

Various types of flutes are shown here, from base to piccolo.

When I play my flute, the full, rich sound of every note glides over my ears like melted, chocolate-smooth, sweet and creamy-and my heart feels nourished. If I’m happy, my fingers play gaily with the flute keys, and If I’m sad, my breath pours deep into the mouthpiece and releases out as long, mournfully sultry calls. When I play the flute, the notes connect my soul to all those who’ve played before me, each of us telling the story of our tribes, our villages, our kingdoms, and our countries through our music. All of us for the last 40,000 years.

That’s right, according to a study led by archaeologist Nicholas Conard of the University of Tübingen in Germany, pieces of a flute made from vulture bone were found in 2008 at Hohle Fels, a Stone Age cave in southern Germany. This story comes from the National Geographic article posted in 2009.

According to Conrad, the old flutes suggest that an early musical tradition likely helped modern humans communicate and create closer social bonds. This form of bonding and communication possibly gave them an advantage over our ancestors’ cousins the Neanderthals, which never proved to be a strain of our genealogy.

“Think how important music is for us,” Conard quotes in the National Geographic story. “Whether it’s at church, a party, or just for fun, you can see how powerful music can be. People often hear a song and cry, or feel great joy or sorrow. All of those kinds of emotions help bond people together.” Every musician knows this fact and needs no science to confirm it.

“When I play my guitar, everything else I do in my life feels worthwhile,” says Jon King, guitarist for a local band called The Great Ak. I wonder if that was how our ancestors, the modern homo sapien of 40,000 years ago, felt as they split open the massive mammoth tusks, hollowed out the insides, cut pieces, then fitted them together, and finally played their notes on their new flutes.

Ancient flutes. Photograph by H. Jenen, courtesy University of Tübingen

In 40,000 years, we as flutists have come a long way. The flute was also created in various parts of Asia, including Japan and China. Music slowly made its way into writing and finally musical notation as we know it today got written down by Mozart. We kicked up classical notes to a jazz flare and before long, flute made its way into rock with Jethro Tull and dubstep-style Shpongle. Yet through all the forms it has taken and all the genres it has entered, the flute’s essence as a deep breath morphing into rich sound remains–from the first humans to create it down to me and all others living who still play it.


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