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What Is a Bone Flute?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 23, 2024
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The bone flute is an often primitive flute made out of the bones of various animals. Historians widely consider the bone flute to be the oldest instrument in the world. Some versions of the instrument have been dated back as far as 40,000 years old.

Many different pieces of bone, from almost any species, can be used for making a bone flute. Many such instruments were made out of the bones of birds, especially larger birds like birds of carrion or birds of prey. Other models were made from the femurs of bears. Certain scientists claim that they have also found bone flutes made with mammoth bones or the bones of a similar species.

Some bone flutes are simply long bone pieces fastened together into a cylinder, or one single piece hollowed with holes drilled into it. As historians study different bone flutes and fragments of these instruments, they begin to see progressively complex designs carved into the bone, showing the desire of early music makers to decorate their flutes. The craftsmanship of these items can tell archaeologists and others a lot about a certain time period.

Experts in this field point out that bone flutes sometimes display a rather advanced and complex construction. To make a bone flute from some bones, the makers had to make two similar pieces and combine them. Making the holes in the right places for certain tonal sounds was also a major challenge. Historians often evaluate the precision of the placement of sound holes in the flute as another marker of progress in a given era or historic culture.

Those who research past eras can also use an item like a bone flute to build additional theories about our ancestors. For instance, some claim that the flutes were used to create music that allowed certain groups of humans to thrive and to dominate within a region of the primitive world. Anthropologists can use modern examples of martial music as circumstantial evidence of this theory.

Although it is known that the bone flute as an instrument is extremely old, it is uncertain exactly how old these items are. There is a controversy in many historian circles over whether bone flutes were also made in the Neanderthal era. The characteristics of different finds do not always allow for clear dating, and there is room for debate on the specific origin of the bone flute.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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