World's oldest musical instruments identified

Posted by Kate Taylor

People have been making music for thousands of years longer than thought, new dating evidence shows.

The first modern humans in Europe were playing musical instruments as early as 40,000 years ago, say researchers from Oxford and Tübingen universities. They've based their conclusions on new radiocarbon dates for bones found in the same archaeological layers as flutes made from bird bones and mammoth ivory.

The flutes were excavated at the Geissenklösterle cave in Germany, widely believed to have been occupied by some of first modern humans to arrive in Europe.

The new dates come via an improved ultrafiltration method designed to remove contamination from the collagen preserved in the bones.

They give results that are 2,000 to 3,000 years older than previously thought - the earliest for the Aurignacian, and earlier thanequivalent sites from Italy, France, England and other regions.

"These results are consistent with a hypothesis we made several years ago that the Danube River was a key corridor for the movement of humans and technological innovations into central Europe between 40,000 and 45,000 years ago," says Professor Nick Conard of Tübingen University.

"Geissenklösterle is one of several caves in the region that has produced important examples of personal ornaments, figurative art, mythical imagery and musical instruments. The new dates prove the great antiquity of the Aurignacian in Swabia."

The study results indicate that modern humans arrived in the Upper Danube region before an extremely cold climatic phase around 39,000 to 40,000 years ago. Researchers had previously believed they arrived afterwards.

"Modern humans during the Aurignacian period were in central Europe at least 2,000 to 3,000 years before this climatic deterioration, when huge icebergs calved from ice sheets in the northern Atlantic and temperatures plummeted," says professor Tom Higham of the University of Oxford.

"The question is what effect this downturn might have had on the people in Europe at the time."

The results are also important, says the team, for what they may one day tell us about the relationship between early moderns and Neanderthals in Europe. Despite a great deal of looking, researchers haven't yet found any signs of cultural contact or interbreeding in this part of Europe.