Aurignacian happy hours

4 minute read

That image conjured by John Noble Wilford just had me tickled:

It so happens, as Dr. Conard and his co-authors, Susanne C. Mnzel of Tubingen and Maria Malina of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences, noted, the Hohle Fels flute was uncovered in sediments a few feet away from the carved figurine of a busty, nude woman, also around 35,000 years old. The discovery was announced in May by Dr. Conard.
Was this evidence of happy hours after the hunt? Fertility rites or social bonding? The German archaeologists suggested that music in the Stone Age could have contributed to the maintenance of larger social networks, and thereby perhaps have helped facilitate the demographic and territorial expansion of modern humans.

The description of the flutes is available in advance copy from Nature. This is one of my pet peeves – papers in advance of print – because I can’t just enter them into my bibliographic database; there are no volume or page numbers. What a pain.

Mammoth ivory flutes were really hard to make.

The characteristics of these three fragments of ivory are known only from the ivory flute from the upper Aurignacian deposits of Geienklsterle archaeological horizon II (ref. 15). The technology for making an ivory flute is much more complicated than that for making a flute from a bird bone. It requires forming the rough shape along the long axis of a naturally curved piece of mammoth ivory, splitting it open at the interface of the cementum and dentine or along one of the other bedding plains in the ivory, carefully hollowing out the halves, carving the holes and then rejoining the halves of the flute with air-tight seals along the seams that connected the halves of the flute. The ivory flute from Geienklsterle preserves dozens of finely carved notches along the edges of the two halves to facilitate binding and sealing the flute (15). Although thousands of pieces of ivory-working debris and hundreds of ivory artefacts have been recovered from the Aurignacian deposits of Hohle Fels, Vogelherd and Geienklsterle, only the flute fragments have the form described above and preserve a hollowed-out convex morphology, finger holes and series of notches along the edge of the long axis. Thus, we can be confident that these finds represent fragments of ivory flutes similar to the one recovered from Geienklsterle. We recovered the ivory flute from Geienklsterle in 31 small fragments. Given the tendency of delicate ivory artefacts to break into many pieces, it is not unusual to find such pieces in isolation.

The tiny (~1 cm) fragments don’t look like much by themselves. Several of them were found only by water screening of sediments. Much more than the “origin of music” angle, I think the attention of Conard’s team is the real story here. They had an inkling what to look for, and they started finding the pieces. I wonder how many others may be floating around unrecognized within Upper Paleolithic collections. The thing working against a lot of unrecognized tiny flute fragments is that the Swabian sites seem to have involved dedicated ivory working on a scale that doesn’t appear elsewhere.

The flutes made of bird bone are much simpler to manufacture and interpret.

The maker of the flute carved the instrument from the radius of a griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus). This species has a wing span of between 230 and 265 cm and provides bones ideal for large flutes. Griffon vultures and other vultures are documented in the Upper Palaeolithic sediments of the Swabian caves with several examples identified from Gravettian and Aurignacian deposits at Geissenklsterle.

The Geissenklösterle flute has previously been modeled to evaluate its sound characteristics; this has not been done for the new flutes:

The smaller, three-holed bone flute, made from the radius of a swan, that was recovered from the Aurignacian deposits of archaeological horizon II at the nearby cave of Geienklsterle can be played by blowing obliquely into its proximal end to produce four basic notes (10, 11, 12, 13). Three additional overtones can be produced by blowing more sharply into the flute. Given that the three-holed flute from Geienklsterle produces a range of notes comparable to many modern kinds of flute, we expect flute 1 from Hohle Fels to provide a comparable, or perhaps greater, range of notes and musical possibilities (14).

I for one am tired of the boring New-Agey flute music that has been creeping into documentaries about ancient people. So I hope that somebody out there will think a little more broadly about the kind of musical environment these flutes were part of. There would have been a huge potential variety of percussion artifacts. Singing and clapping. Probably not strings, although as long as we’re going to talk seriously about arrows in the Upper Paleolithic, a good bowstring has a nice pluck to it.

Now if you’re a composer of documentary caveman music, you don’t want to take this too far. And by “too far”, I mean Ewok celebration from Return of the Jedi “too far.” That would not be my idea of a “happy hour.” Kapiche?


Conard NJ, Malina M, Münzel SC. 2009. New flutes document the earliest musical tradition in southwestern Germany. Nature (advance online) doi:10.1038/nature08169