Vulture bone flutes

BBC News: ‘Oldest musical instrument’ found.

Scientists in Germany have published details of flutes dating back to the time that modern humans began colonising Europe, 35,000 years ago. The flutes are the oldest musical instruments found to date. The researchers say in the Journal Nature that music was widespread in pre-historic times.

The team from Tubingen University have published details of three flutes found in the Hohle Fels cavern in southwest Germany.

The most well-preserved of the flutes is made from a vulture’s wing bone, measuring 20cm long with five finger holes and two "V"-shaped notches on one end of the instrument into which the researchers assume the player blew. The archaeologists also found fragments of two other flutes carved from ivory that they believe was taken from the tusks of mammoths.

I play a solid silver Gemeinhardt flute, and my first thought on reading this was "how do they sound?" The vulture bone flute is curved, and it looks to be a vertical instrument instead of the modern transverse flutes, more like a tin whistle than my own flute. It has four visible holes on one side, probably a thumb hole on the back. The article includes a sound clip of a reconstruction of the vulture bone flute and it is surprisingly tuneful.

There was a noticeable difference in tone between my original silver-plated Elkhart flute, and the solid silver Gemeinhardt, the new flute made the old one sound like a cheap penny whistle. Rumour has it there is a similar difference in tone when you go up to a solid gold flute like the one played by James Galway.

Wooden instruments have a very different sound to metal ones, they are warmer, less precise, and more breathy. The curve of the vulture bone would affect the sound, flutes generate standing sound waves of varying lengths depending on the keys pressed, and you need a straight tube for a good standing wave.

One thought on “Vulture bone flutes”

  1. Speaking as an acoustician, there would inevitably be a *difference* in sound between flutes made of such different metals. It’s a matter of pure aesthetics (which are strongly influenced by psychology, including the factor of “*HOW* much did I pay for this?!?”) as to whether the gold flute is actually *better* than the silver, or whether the silver is *better* than the silver-plated-whatever-cheap-stuff-it’s-made-of.

    Of course, the reverse is also true: A metal’s reputation as to how good it sounds when turned into instruments plays into it’s value on the open market.

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