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Music Had Charms to Soothe Prehistoric Man

Last Updated: June 24, 2009.

Flute find suggests early ancestors more culturally sophisticated than thought.

By Randy Dotinga
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, June 24 (HealthDay News) -- The discovery of a cache of prehistoric flutes suggests that music soothed the savage beast in early man as far back as 35,000 years ago.

German paleontologists found the flutes, made of ivory and bones from birds, in a cave in southwestern Germany. They date back to the Middle Paleolithic era and indicate that "early modern man" had more in common with today's humans than scientists realized.

"This tells us that a quintessential human trait was in existence at that time," said Jeffrey Laitman, director of anatomy and functional morphology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. "We're looking at a very sophisticated culture and population."

According to the report in the June 25 issue of Nature, "the archaeological record of the evolution and spread of music remains incomplete." As a result, it's been hard to pinpoint when humans began making music.

Prior to the current discovery, the authors wrote, the earliest musical artifacts dated from fewer than 30,000 years ago and were found in France and Austria.

Last summer, however, the German paleontologists found a nearly complete flute made of bone and fragments of three ivory flutes. Just like modern flutes, the ancient ones have holes that humans could cover to make different sounds when blowing through them.

The flutes show that the human society of the time was becoming modern, Laitman said.

They were not simply devoting their lives to finding food, he said. The flutes "are telling us about intricate and delicate communication, bonding, social events that are going on."

Why make a flute out of bird bone? Because it's an ideal kind of bone to use, said Daniel Adler, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut.

"Bird bone is thin, light and strong, which is conducive to flight, but also to flute production," he said. "In addition, the marrow in bird bones is rather thin and therefore easy to remove without damaging the bone. Once removed, one has a bone tube ideal for transformation into a flute."

But one shouldn't assume that making a flute was an easy task just because ancient man managed to accomplish it, Adler said. "These are technologically savvy, socially and cognitively complex people. I'd like to see you or me try to make one of these things. We'd never make it into the orchestra!"

Adler predicted that scientists will find even earlier flutes. "These flutes are too well-made and designed to represent the first flutes," he said. "The makers and players of these flutes had considerable knowledge and experience that likely reflects information transfer across many generations."

In the big picture, the flute find gives greater insights in the ancestors of humans, Laitman said.

"You're looking at a fully modern cousin of ours who's appreciating things at a very fine level," he said. "It's quite an extraordinary thing."

More information

Learn more about the evolution of man from Stanford University.

SOURCES: Jeffrey Laitman, Ph.D., director, anatomy and functional morphology, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City; Daniel Adler, Ph.D., professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Connecticut, Storrs; June 25, 2009, Nature.


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