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Musical Instruments

Whistles from Reindeer Bones


Whistles made of Reindeer Bones, Petersfels, ca 15 000 BP.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2008
Source: Badisches Landesmuseum Karlsruhe Germany

Whistle from Roc de Marcamps, probably from the bone of a bird.

Catalog: 70.19.465

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2015
Source: Original, Musée d'Aquitaine à Bordeaux

Magdalenian whistles from Roc de Marcamps, made of bird bones.

Catalog: 70.19.463, 70.19.464.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2015
Source: Original, Musée d'Aquitaine à Bordeaux


Gravettian whistle from l'abri Lespaux, Saint-Quentin-de-Baron, made from a bird bone.

Catalog: collection Krtolitza.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2015
Source: Original, Musée d'Aquitaine à Bordeaux

Bull Roarer
Magdalenian 'bullroarer', covered with red ochre and incised with linear motifs, from La Roche, Lalinde, Dordogne.

180 mm long, 40 mm wide at widest point.

Photo: Bahn (1997) Source and text: Morley (2003)

Bull Roarer

1. Magdalenian; La Roche, Lalinde, Dordogne, see above. Length 180mm.
2. Magdalenian; Abri de Laugerie Basse, Les Eyzies-de-Tayac. Length 107mm.
3. Solutrean; Lespugue, Haute Garonne. Length 90mm.
4. Solutrean; Badegoule, Dordogne. Length 190mm.

Photo: Dauvois (1989) Source and text: Morley (2003)

noisemakers - whistle and flute and bullroarer

Music and dance are ephemeral art forms. However the existence of music in the Paleolithic is attested by the discovery of several types of instruments: flutes, whistles, bull-roarers and scrapers.

Drums probably existed in the Paleolithic, but these instruments made of wood and skin are rarely if ever preserved. However, in some caves, calcite sheets or curtains showing traces of percussion testify to the rhythmical talents of prehistoric musicians.

60: Bone flute, facsimile, from Isturitz, Atlantic Pyrenees.

61: Whistle in bone, original, from Laugerie-Basse, Dordogne.

62: Bullroarer or rhombus or turndun, facsimile, in reindeer antler, Lalinde, Dordogne. Note the colour, originally from ochre, and the regular straight lines and rectangles decorating it.

63: Scraper, or scraped idiophone, original, from Mas d'Azil, Ariège. This one seems to have been made from a salvaged broken spear straightener.

Scraped idiophones (an idiophone is defined as a musical instrument from which the sound comes from the natural sonorous quality of the instrument itself, not from a stretched string or hide or enclosed column of air) are rasps or notched sticks over which another stick is scraped, resulting in a series of beats.

Photo: Kathy King 2010

Source: Image and translated and adapted text from the display at Musée d'archéologie nationale, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

bâton percé bâton percé

Closeups of the idiophone from Mas d'Azil above.

Photo: Don Hitchcock 2015
Source: Original, Musée d'Archeologie Nationale et Domaine, St-Germain-en-Laye
Text: Rigaud (2001)

Lithophones - the first Xylophone

Note that these stones were not found together, and were probably never played in the fashion of a modern xylophone. They were played as a single note, not as part of a musical piece with many different notes - Don 

Mariette Le Roux and Laurent Banguet (AFP) write:

Thousands of years after they first resonated in caves, two dozen stone chimes used by our prehistoric forefathers will make music once more in a unique series of concerts in Paris. Known as lithophones, the instruments have been dusted off from museum storage to be played in public for the first time to give modern Man an idea of his ancestral sounds.

After just three shows -- two on Saturday (March 22) and a third the following Monday -- the precious stones will be packed away again, forever. 'That will be their last concert together,' music archaeologist Erik Gonthier of the Natural History Museum in Paris, told AFP ahead of the production. 'We will never repeat it, for ethical reasons -- to avoid damaging our cultural heritage. We don't want to add to the wear of these instruments.'

Dubbed 'Paleomusique', the piece was written by classical composer Philippe Fenelon to showcase the mineral clang and echo of instruments from beyond recorded time. They will be played xylophone-style by four percussionists from the French National Orchestra gently tapping the stones with mallets. The point is to highlight our ancestors' musical side, which Gonthier says is often overshadowed by their rock-painting and tool-making prowess. In fact, he believes, there might have been a strong link between music and visual art in prehistoric caves.

Photo and text:


Another view of the lithophone.


Mariette Le Roux and Laurent Banguet (AFP) continue:

'These were the first theatre or cinema halls,' he speculated. The instruments, carefully-crafted stone rods up to a metre (3.2 feet) in length, have been in the museum's collection since the early 20th century. They have been dated to between 4 500 and 10 000 BP, a period known as the New Stone Age, characterised by human use of stone tools, pottery-making, the rise of farming and animal domestication.

For decades, their solid, oblong shape made experts believe they were pestles or grinders of grain. But that perception changed a decade ago, thanks to a stroke of fortune. Gonthier, a former jeweller and stone-cutter, discovered their true, musical nature when he tapped one with a mallet in the storeroom of the museum in 1994. Instead of a dull thud he heard musical potential, and decided to investigate further.

'I thought back to my grandmother's piano and the small supports which made the strings resonate. I found some packaging foam in the trashcans of the museum I made two rests that I placed under either end of the lithophone, and tapped it. It made a clear tinnnnggg,' Gonthier recounted. 'My heart beat like crazy. I knew that I had found something great.'

Gonthier named his first lithophone 'Stradivarius' after the famous makers of string instruments. The instrument was the result of a "grain-by-grain" chipping process that could have taken as much as two years to complete. Five years after his discovery, 'Stradivarius' and dozens of other stones in the museum's collection were officially recognised as lithophones, a known if obscure category of musical instruments. The name derives from the Greek words for stone and sound.

Gonthier said he had a long battle to convince other experts the stones could be safely used, with great care, for the upcoming concert. The museum's lithophones are mainly from the Sahara, many brought back by French troops stationed in colonies like Algeria and Sudan in the early 1900s. Gonthier says all lithophones, which can be made from types of sandstone or schist, share certain characteristics. Each one always comes to rest in the same position determined by its centre of gravity, and every instrument has two sound 'planes' that can be found by tapping at 90 degree angles around its circumference. Importantly, the instruments are short and slim enough to be carried easily in one hand -- the earliest example of a portable sound system.

These were Man's first MP3s, said Gonthier. A case in point: 'Stradivarius' was discovered about 1 500 kilometres (900 miles) from the rock from which it was most likely carved. To play, the instruments would have been rested on brackets made of leather or plant fibres, or even on the musician's ankles, sitting cross-legged, said Gonthier. The mallets may have had heads of wood or bone, although none has ever been found. The instruments were almost always found alone. Music may not have been their only purpose. They may also have been used to signal danger, 'or even to call people to dinner,' laughed Gonthier. 'They can be heard from kilometres (miles) away in the desert or forest'. One thing is clear: 'They were made to last -- the proof is that we still have them today.'


For years, these cylindrical stones lay forgotten, dusty in the basements of a museum, until the French ethno-Mineralogist Eric Gonthier identified them as musical instruments from the Neolithic period. Now the sound of the stones may be heard for the first time in thousands of years. The French National Orchestra's 80th Birthday Celebrations were given a composition with the 'Lithophonen' - a world premiere.

Clicking the link above a couple of times should take you to the youtube site to watch the video. If this does not happen, or if the video has disappeared from youtube, please let me know.

Ice-age musicians fashioned ivory flute

Achim Schneider

A 30 000 year old instrument is uncovered in southern Germany.

Photo: © H. Jensen, University of Tübingen

From the scientific journal, Nature:

One of the world's oldest known musical instruments has been discovered by German archaeologists. The 18.7-centimetre-long flute, which is carved from mammoth ivory, has three finger holes and would have been capable of playing relatively complex melodies.

The flute was found in 31 pieces in the Geißenklösterle cave in mountains near Ulm in southern Germany. Two other flutes made of swan bones were discovered at the site more than a decade ago. The three are much older than any other musical instrument yet discovered.

Nicholas Conard from the University of Tübingen, Germany, and his colleagues report the find in the latest edition of the Archäologisches Korrespondenzblatt. They dated the age of the deposits where the three flutes were found to between 30 000 and 37 000 years old.

But it is the extraordinary sophistication of the newly discovered instrument that sets it apart from the swan-bone flutes. "This third flute is like a Rolls Royce compared with a Hyundai," says Conard. Its makers used mammoth ivory, the highest quality material available to them at the time, he says.

Carving a flute from solid ivory is much more demanding than making a flute from bird bones, which are already hollow. The crooked mammoth tusk had to be split and the two halves carefully hollowed out, then bound and glued together along a perfectly airtight seam.

The 30 000-year-old instrument could have played relatively sophisticated tunes. Click here to hear a music sample.

The flute's makers lived in the Upper Palaeolithic era of the last ice age, a period when Europe was occupied simultaneously by the last Neanderthals and the first modern humans.

The inhabitants of the region were adept artisans, and small ivory figurines, which are among the earliest known examples of figurative art, have been found in several sites. Southern Germany "may have been one of the places where human culture originated", says Conard.

A few fragments of the Stone Age flute are missing, but to investigate what kind of music the instrument would have made, Friedrich Seeberger, an expert in prehistoric music and co-author of this report, has made a replica in elder wood.

His early experimentation suggests that the old flute would have allowed a relatively sophisticated level of musical variation. "The tones are quite harmonic," he says. They don't seem to follow a diatonic scale, he notes, but rather the rules of the pentatonic scale that predominates in Asia.

Seeberger now plans to build a more accurate replica, to hear exactly what the original flute would have sounded like. He is currently seeking the right material: mammoth ivory, of course.

Photo: © H. Jensen, University of Tübingen


Composed of 31 fragments, this flute made of mammoth ivory is from the Geißenklösterle cave near Blaubeuren.

It was carved 30-37 000 years ago, and with it relatively complex melodies could be played.

Archaeologists also found in Geißenklösterle two palaeolithic flutes that were made from swan bones.

Photo and text:

Neandertal Cave Bear Bone Flute

flute In the Divje babe I cave in the Idrijca river valley at Šebrelje, the Institute of Archaeology of the Scientific Research Centre at the Slovene Academy of Sciences and Arts has been exploring several geological layers, rich with evidence of human presence, which have so far yielded a large quantity of archaeological finds ranging from the bones of different animal species (belonging mostly to the cave bear) to tools made of stone and bone which were produced and used by Neanderthals in the mid-Palaeolithic period, followed by Cro-Magnon man, the oldest modern thinking human in Europe, in the late-Palaeolithic period. Excellent results and discoveries made during these excavations have turned the cave into one of the most important Stone Age archaeological sites in the world.

Previously the most famous such Slovene site had been Potočka Zijalka at Olševa. But in 1995 an extraordinary find was discovered in Divje babe - a bone flute. The flute was unearthed in the 45 000 year old remains of a Neanderthal fireplace. It is made from a piece of hollow cave bear cub bone and contains drilled holes, the arrangement of which corresponds to the distances between the fingers.



This page has many links which those wanting to know more about bone flutes may be interested in, my thanks to Megan for bringing it to my attention:


  1. Bahn P., 1997: Journey Through the Ice Age, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London.
  2. Dauvois M., 1989: Son et Musique Paléolithiques, Les Dossiers D'Archéologie, Vol. 142, p. 2-11.
  3. Morley I., 2003: The Evolutionary Originsand Archaeology of Music, Darwin College Research Report, DCRR-002, ISSN 1749-9194
  4. Darwin College Research Report DCRR-002 The Evolutionary Origins and Archaeology of Music Iain Morley October 2003 (electronic edition 12 January 2006)

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