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Timeline: Bone Flutes

U.S. Public Domain
This is a diagram of the original bone flutes uncovered in the Huhle Fels dig in 2008.

Music lies close to the foundation of our common humanity. Let me explain what I mean.

Let’s go back in time and imagine Paleolithic humans as they were roughly 45,000 years ago. This was the moment that Neanderthals begin to disappear from the fossil record along with a huge population explosion of homo sapiens; a turning point for all of humanity. We know that there were already complex systems of culture binding humans together and we found evidence of art and craft and yes, even music.

In 2008 at an archeological dig called Huhle Fels (20 miles south of Stuttgart, Germany) scientists were slowly excavating a set of Stone Age caverns that were once homes to these homosapiens we were just imagining. In the dirt they discovered many interesting artifacts of daily life as well as symbols and sculptures; evidence of a thriving art community. Among these findings were bone flutes, early instruments carved from the wing of a vulture. These 40,000 year old bone flutes are small and carefully constructed. There is a V shaped mouth piece for the performer and five finger holes made in precise locations. These instruments were no accident; they were the result of skilled craftsmanship. Also they weren’t just found in one location, there were fragments of similar flutes in the same dig and in those nearby. In other words, these musical tools were quite common.

Nicholas Conrad, one of the archeologists at the Huhle Fels dig, believes that music for these early humans (these homosapiens) allowed for deeper social connections as a group. He wrote, “Think how important music is for us, 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 these emotions help bond people together.”

Conrad goes on to speculate that this bonding over art and specifically music aided the homo sapiens in a “cultural arms race” with the Neanderthals. As we created and shared art and song and tune we grew closer, more connected allowing for the creation of society and culture. I think it’s no coincidence that the time period we find these artifacts in is the same one in which the population of humanity exploded, art and culture leads to prosperity.

So, in a way, music for early humanity became a weapon – of sorts. Not one that tears or breaks or bludgeons but one that binds and draws individuals into units, allowing them to be stronger, together. Music is part of how we define ourselves; it lies at the foundation of our shared humanity.

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James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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