Sometime between 40,000 and 45,000 years ago, a group of early humans on a migration route out of Africa, along the corridor of the Danube River valley, carried with them a small but significant object: a flute.
Carved from the bone of a griffon vulture, with five carefully crafted finger holes, this instrument lay buried and forgotten for tens of thousands of years — until recently, when it was discovered in the cavernous halls of the Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura mountain range of southwestern Germany. The discovery highlights an important detail pertaining to the lives of our ancient ancestors: during their migration from Africa into Europe as early as 40,000 years ago, our ancestors were already making music.
The oldest yet of a series of similar flutes found in the region, the Hohle Fels flute sheds new light on the lives and cultural innovations of early humans. From radiocarbon dating of this and other artifacts, it has long been thought that the flute was the earliest form of musical instrument created by our distant ancestors. But at an astonishing 40,000 years old, the antiquity of this new finding forces us to reconsider many of our notions regarding the question of when humans developed the capacity for complex modes of thought and expression.
As a flutist and flutemaker, I’m struck by this knowledge that the flute was being used for music-making at such an early point in human history. For me, evidence of their ancient legacy adds to a certain mystique surrounding the family of woodwind instruments, whose timeless qualities of sound and ambience can be heard in some fashion in nearly every corner of the globe. In many ways, the flute is as universal as the human voice itself, and this may explain its allure across cultures: at its essence is something as fundamental as wind moving through reeds, but its unique power comes from the fact that what gives it voice is the living breath of the player, invoking it to resonate with sound. It’s quite magical, when you think about it: the flutist conjuring into song the vital element of air. For the ancient flutemaker, though, to be endowed with the skill to manipulate elements of bone, wood, and air into a device capable of such magic: to the ancients, we can surmise, this must have been significant.
The essence of the flute is as fundamental as wind moving through reeds, but its unique power comes from the fact that what gives it voice is the living breath of the player, invoking it to resonate with sound.
Contrary to its elemental nature, the flute is anything but elementary in terms of the physical laws that allow it to operate. Perhaps more so than any other instrument, the flute embodies the physical properties of sound itself: the shape and design of the flute must accommodate the actual soundwaves moving through air in order to produce notes. A working flute is really a “perfect storm” of complicated physical properties that collectively influence the sound that will come out of it — and that determine even if a sound will come out. In even the most basic of flutes, the ratio of the tube’s diameter to its length, the shape and angles of the blowhole, and even the size of the toneholes in relation to their placement, are just a few of the elements that must align properly in order for the flute to work. While a flutemaker can at times “get lucky” and stumble upon happy coincidences, replicating that result again requires more than a reliance on serendipity. In short, the art and craft of constructing a playable flute is no simple business.
As such, the discovery of the Hohle Fels flute becomes interesting in what it suggests about humans living 40,000 years ago. The presence of social music-making combined with the ability to conceive of and implement a musical instrument such as the flute points to the existence of multiple intelligences — a milestone in human development. This discovery rekindles the debate about the significance of other findings from this time period, as well: sculpted figurines, engraved drawings, cave paintings and more. Were these objects really genuine works of art intended to express abstract ideas, or merely literal representations of the world around them, scrawled haphazardly on the walls of caves?
The debate may never be fully resolved, but it’s becoming clearer that early humans strove to instill meaning into their daily lives that went beyond mere survival. Furthermore, in catching this rare glimpse into the unfolding of culture itself, we can see that the evolutionary roots of music go deep into our human story. So deep, that many scientists now believe that music played a crucial role in the development of the human mind itself. This gives weight to the idea that musical intelligence is a feature of the human brain, hard-wired into us, and not just a gift given to a chosen few. While many people would agree that life without music would be unpleasant, the truth may be that we would simply not have evolved to become us without it. It explains why music really is the universal language — connecting us across not just cultures, but through time and history as well.
One thing that has always fascinated me about music is the way that it can simultaneously appeal to both the emotional and analytical components of our minds. On the one hand, sound has the ability to affect us on a very primal level, but the components of music — frequency, harmony, rhythm — can also be understood from the viewpoint of mathematics and physics. While the emotional factor is what drew me to music-making, it was the analytical component that led me to instrument making. A musical instrument can be both aesthetically beautiful and mathematically exact. These features are not mutually exclusive; rather, it is their synthesis that serves the whole. That one enhances the other reveals something about what we perceive to be beautiful.
A musical instrument can be both aesthetically beautiful and mathematically exact. These features are not mutually exclusive; rather, it is their synthesis that serves the whole. That one enhances the other reveals something about what we perceive to be beautiful.
The interesting thing about flutes, in particular, is that way that mathematics can be employed to understand exactly how a particular flute would sound — without even playing it. Specific measurements of numerous physical properties, including the length, tube diameter, and placement of a flute’s toneholes, can yield for us the tonal scale that it would produce. In this manner, we can examine our 40,000 year-old Hohle Fels flute, and see how it stands up under scrutiny: was this the work of a primitive tinkerer who “got lucky”, or the handiwork of a more experienced artisan?
The scientists who discovered the artifact set out to answer this very question. An actual reconstructed replica, reverse-engineered from exact measurements of the fragile original, revealed the Hohle Fels flute to be quite comparable to a modern-day flute. When played, it produced a complete pentatonic scale — one of the world’s most common scales, forming the basis of much of modern music. Indeed, this flute that was found in a cave and dates back to the Ice Age would have been technically capable of playing contemporary music.
We can deduce that the flute found in the Hohle Fels cave was not a one-off. Careful inspection of the artifact shows that small lines were first etched into the flute, indicating where to “drill” the holes — so at the outset, some measurement and calculated thought of where the holes should go took place. The flutemaker’s knowledge of where to place the holes to produce accurate pitch must have been the result of significant trial and error, and through the development of many prototypes — perhaps even from knowledge passed down through generations. We might take this even further by suggesting that, since bone would not have been the easiest material to work with, even earlier flutes may have existed that were made from various types of wood — these items would not have survived to become part of the fossil record. How much further back in time, then, did this legacy of flute-making go? I suppose we will never know.
But just to muse on it is enough. If we travel back in time in our mind’s eye, we can marvel at the sparks of ingenuity and creativity that led to the world’s first musical instruments. We can wonder about the actual music that was played on those first flutes: for what melodies were they intended? What was the effect on the listeners as their songs reverberated through the ancient concert chambers of hillside caves?
While bone and rock can survive the ravages of time, a song leaves its footprint only on the minds of those who witness its performance. In many ways, this is the enigma of our past: science can only tell us so much about the moment in time represented by an artifact; the rest is left to our imagination.
In many ways, this is the enigma of our past: science can only tell us so much about the moment in time represented by an artifact; the rest is left to our imagination.
My interest in the flutes of indigenous peoples around the world began during my travels in West Africa, where I had the opportunity to study the tambin, the unique three-holed flute of the Fulani and Malinké people of Guinea.
Constructed from a woody vine that is the flute’s namesake, the tambin — or Fula Flute — originated with the Fulani people, one of the most widely dispersed ethnic groups in Africa, and the largest pastoral nomadic group in the world. The Fulani today live throughout West and Central Africa, with much of their population concentrated in the Fouta Djallon highlands of Guinea. Fulani culture dates back to at least the Neolithic era, with the most notable evidence of this being the resplendent treasury of rock art discovered in the Tassili n’Ajjer mountain range in Algeria — containing over 15,000 unique engravings, and dating back to 6000 BC.
Across a half-dozen or so trips to Guinea, I was able to learn from several fulafolas — masters of the Fula flute. In addition to studying much of the tambin’s repertoire, I learned the traditional building techniques of this ancient flute from a Malinké man hailing from the Kouroussa region of Guinea. His name was Lancine Conde. In a small village tucked away on a bend of the Niger River, I became Lancine’s “little brother”, and with more patience than I often deserved, he imparted his knowledge to me.
There, along the mighty Niger, where the river winds through low-lying countryside, the tambin vine grows in abundance. The vine itself is wood-like and hollow throughout, with sturdy outer walls, not unlike bamboo or rattan. As I found out, it is well-suited to flute building: its plentiful availability lends itself to experimentation, and its natural taper overcomes the problem of upper-register flatness that is inherent in cylindrical flutes. Both the embouchure and toneholes can be easily burned into the vine, without need for complicated tools. Being a transverse (side-blown) flute, the tambin incorporates a winged-style embouchure, which assists greatly in producing the flute’s full range of 2½ octaves; these raised wings are constructed out of a locally available type of black beeswax (referred to elsewhere in the world as bee cerumin). The cerumin can be heated and easily molded to suit the player’s needs. Due to its high propolis content, when the cerumin dries, it hardens to a solid mass and adheres to the vine.
One of the biggest challenges in woodwind design and construction is the accurate placement of each tonehole to produce the desired notes and scale. The tambin is no exception. Traditional flutemakers in West Africa such as Lancine, however, accomplish this feat with surprising accuracy and consistency, without the aid of advanced measurement tools, tuners, or mathematics. Skilled artisans, they rely heavily on intuition, and often utilize nothing but their own fingers as “measuring sticks” — without paper and pen, the relationships of the instrument to their own arms and fingers are memorized, so that specific ratios can be reproduced again in future efforts. Having honed their skills with a lifetime of musical immersion, they fine-tune the pitch of their instruments by ear until the flute can sing back to them the very songs they grew up with.
Having honed their skills with a lifetime of musical immersion, they fine-tune the pitch of their instruments by ear until the flute can sing back to them the very songs they grew up with.
The cumulative knowledge acquired by the traditional flutemaker through a lifetime of experimentation and training is impressive. Equally as fascinating, though, is how the simple, raw materials from which this ancient woodwind is built seem to belie the underlying complexity of the physics behind it. Adornment with leather, rope, and cowrie shells completes the aesthetic of an object which, born of the earth, carries a significance beyond its primary function. No child’s toy, in the skilled hands of the fulafola these enchanting flutes are capable of the finest subtleties of musical expression. That the living breath of the player awakens elements of wood and earth to resonate into sacred song gives the flutes a place in the realm of the mystical — both for those who play it, and for those who are transported by its sounds.
Back home in the States, I wanted to see just how feasible it would be to produce my own tambin-style flute. How complicated could it be? These were, after all, essentially the same type of flute that humans had been making out of bone, wood, and ivory for literally tens of thousands of years, if not more. Without Lancine there to coach me, however, I quickly realized that I was in for a humbling experience.
An avid tinkerer, I decided to “refine” the process to make a flute that was more durable — it needed to survive the extreme cold of New England winters — with materials and tools that were, of course, available to me locally. Necessity, as well as my own innate curiosity, drove me to veer from the methods and materials of traditional West African flute-building, and to find out what was possible. New materials — having different tube diameters, wall thickness, and more — required different methods of determining tonehole placement…so I dug into the available literature on the science of woodwind instrument building.
For three years I absorbed every bit of information I could find on the subject. Combining this with my experiences with Lancine in West Africa and a working knowledge of how these flutes were built, I produced dozens of prototypes in my workshop in northern New Hampshire. Numerous failed attempts preceded even the first remotely playable flute. A sad-looking pile of discarded flutes accumulated beneath my workbench — but every failed attempt revealed critical new information that spurred me onwards to try again, even if only to make new mistakes. In this manner, the tambin slowly began to reveal its secrets — not all at once, and not even every time — but the flutes I was now producing had begun to take on a character that were somehow richer, and assuredly more enjoyable to play. With patience, I found that subtle changes made big differences. I strove to perfect the shape, size, and angles of the embouchure. Toneholes grew larger and then smaller again on subsequent flutes, as I experimented with finding just the right ratios.
…every failed attempt revealed critical new information that spurred me onwards to try again, even if only to make new mistakes. In this manner, the tambin slowly began to reveal its secrets…
Without realizing it, through repeated trial and error, experimentation and failure, I had been moving through a passage of initiation similar to that which brings forth a traditional flute-maker in West Africa. With time, I was no longer copying a model of a flute, as I once had as an apprentice in our hot, dusty workshop in West Africa…but learning to create one. In the process, I discovered something else quite unexpected: how to learn. It was the most important secret that the flute had revealed to me.
All in all, it took over three years of concerted effort, relying on mathematical equations, calipers, and electronic tuners, to finally produce a flute that I thought could rival the quality and playability of the flutes made by Lancine — who still uses only the most basic tools to create instruments of unprecedented quality.
Discoveries such as the Hohle Fels flute in southwestern Germany provide us with valuable insight into our collective past — important for piecing together the chronology of our common story, the tale of how we all came to be. Additionally, the survival into modern times of traditions like those exemplified by the ancient Fulani flute reveal to us that our collective story is indeed a continuum.
What’s intriguing, then, is exploring what these stories can tell us about the minds of our ancestors, and their tendency to want to express themselves creatively and intellectually — both symbolically through art, and through the powerful act of communal music making. The existence of the flute in the prehistoric record is proof that the minds of the ancients were indeed capable of a high level of thought and expression, and sought to explore that capacity. These people were not intellectually idle.
The existence of the flute in the prehistoric record is proof that the minds of the ancients were indeed capable of a high level of thought and expression, and sought to explore that capacity. These people were not intellectually idle.
Through the unraveling of our genetic lineage, we now know with certainty that we are all descendants of the same people who, some 65,000 years ago, ignited a historical spark when they began their trek out of Africa. Over the course of thousands of generations, these common ancestors settled the far reaches of the world, bringing with them the traits of intelligence and creativity that have defined us as humans for millennia. Their story has never ended; it lives through you and I every day, for we are their children.
Why does all of this matter? Because it helps us answer the question of when the capacity for intellectual thought and creativity arose, and thus helps us with the challenge of overcoming the cultural conceit that exists in the West that somehow we represent the pinnacle of human achievement. The problem, of course, is that we tend to use the yardstick of our own culture’s achievements to measure all others — using a comparison, for instance, of our own technological progress as the gauge of whether another society has succeeded in becoming as “fully human” as we perceive ourselves to be. This is folly. If we can accept that all people share the same genetic lineage, then we must also accept that we share the same capacity for intellectual thought, creativity, and innovation. How a people expresses that potential is simply a matter of choice. What results from those choices is culture.
The artifacts discovered in the Hohle Fels Cave, dating back some 40,000 years, reveal that this capacity existed in our common ancestors even then, and quite likely long before. The myriad of cultures that have flourished throughout the world since then have found infinitely diverse ways to express that same capacity, through their own unique brilliance and achievements, in their own place and time — but we in the West have too often been blinded by our own gauge of progress to see it. As a result of that short-sightedness, we have inflicted no end of suffering upon the indigenous peoples of the world, the true natives of this Planet Earth.
What lesson can we take from all of this, to guide us as we carve our place in the continuum of the human story? Perhaps it is that, despite the incredible diversity of thought and expression that exists throughout the world, we humans are more similar than we are different. The field of genetics has shown us that the DNA of all human beings alive today is 99.9% alike, effectively nullifying the notion of race that has divided us for so long. Furthermore, the discoveries made along the migration corridor of the Danube River shows that the intellectual and creative capacity needed for diverse culture-making has always been a part of what it means to be human. These venerable trademarks of the human experience are a legacy that should be celebrated and supported, however and wherever they are found — for we are but one family.
April 10, 2015