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Archaeologists say they've unearthed the world's oldest musical instruments. The instruments are flutes made of vulture bone and mammoth tusks. They were found in caves in southwestern Germany, and they date back to the time when modern human beings, who looked like us, were first venturing into Europe.

NPR's Richard Harris has our story.

RICHARD HARRIS: Scientists have little doubt that music is so basic to human nature that it goes back to our earliest days as a species. It's hard not to make music, when you think about it.

Professor NICHOLAS CONARD (Archeologist, Tubingen University): Clap your hands. Tap your foot, dance, whistle, sing. There, I mean, you know, endless kinds of music you can make just with your body.

HARRIS: But Nicolas Conard is an archaeologist, so he is looking for hard evidence of early music. He and his colleagues now report in Nature a spectacular discovery: four flutes, buried in Ice Age garbage heaps in the caves of Germany. They date back 35,000 to 40,000 years, making them the oldest undisputed musical instruments. One of the flutes is made of a vulture wing bone about nine inches long. A replica sounds like this.

(Soundbite of flute)

HARRIS: Other flutes were made out of mammoth tusks. The early musicians clearly had leisure time not only to play but to make instruments.

Prof. CONARD: You know, really quite a surprise that flutes would be made out of massive mammoth ivory, which is a material that's very hard to work, and not just bird bones, which are hollow and sort of, you know, ideal for making flutes.

HARRIS: Conard, at the University of Tubingen in Germany, suspects the ivory flutes were favored because they produced a deeper, richer tone. He says archaeologists have found similar ivory flutes in more recent cave deposits and have figured out what it took to make them. First, a tube of ivory needs to be whittled from the larger tusk and then split in half.

Prof. CONARD: Then you have to hollow it out, get the exact form, smooth out the inside and the outside, cut the ends to length and perfectly cut the finger holes, and even if you can do all that, then you've got the problem of how to get the two halves together.

HARRIS: The ancient craftsmen cut delicate notches in order to get the halves to fit just so.

Prof. CONARD: Then you have to seal it with birch pitch or some kind of sealant or glue, and then you can play it.

HARRIS: In order to figure out what one of those ancient flutes actually sounded like, a colleague of Conard's made a replica out of vulture bone.

Prof. CONARD: The first recording I heard was an absolutely horrendous version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" that sounded something like a more awful version of Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock.

HARRIS: Alas, Conard wouldn't share that recording with NPR. Instead, Conard made available the more demure recording.

(Soundbite of flute)

HARRIS: Now this ancient flute was found very close to another famous artifact Conard recently unearthed from these caves: a carved figure of a female with exaggerated sexual characteristics, a Venus figurine.

Mr. CONARD: It's certainly plausible that the people who carved and used the flute also carved and used the Venus figurine. Again, we can't say for sure, but they could easily go together.

HARRIS: What anthropologists can say without doubt is early modern humans who were venturing into Europe during the last Ice Age were expressing themselves artistically. Ian Tattersall at the American Museum of Natural History says just think of the cave paintings from around this time.

Mr. IAN TATTERSALL (Paleoanthropologist; Curator, American Museum of Natural History): We know that these early humans had the kind of creativity that we have. And now we know for sure that this creativity from the very earliest time includes music.

HARRIS: Music and art reveal that human beings are using abstractions and symbols: hallmarks of humanity.

Mr. TATTERSALL: It gives us imagination. It gives us the ability to create new possibilities and new worlds.

HARRIS: Which is just what our ancestors needed as they pushed north despite the hostile Ice Age conditions 40,000 years ago.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

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