Who Played the Oldest Flute in the World?


I love antique instruments. Old things in general interest me, as they do most people – some of my most memorable experiences in museums come from standing in front of an object that was never intended to last as long as it has, that has no equals, that, for this modern epoch of history at least, defies the universal trend toward decay and entropy.

Yesterday we were at the National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian Institution – surely one of our greatest institutional treasures as a country. Amongst the mummies, the Hope Diamond, and the unbelievably rich collections of animal and insect specimens (more than 90% of life on earth is insects) is the impressive David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. Human evolution is an area of science that continues to make discoveries at an incredibly rapid pace – new discoveries are happening all the time, and I do my very best to keep up. Genetics has allowed new methods of analysis that supplement the radioisotope dating that predominated as I grew up believing it was all some elaborate ruse concocted by some evil force in the universe. The advances of the past 20 years in particular have been quite extraordinary.

I’ve undertaken a course of personal education on the subject of human origins since my early 20s – it started with finally reading Darwin, and my fascination and learning continues to this day. The evolution of life on this planet is, to my mind, the greatest story ever told, and in some ways I have been happy to take this journey as an adult so I can better understand the magnitude of it all. At the Museum, I was astonished and thrilled to see amazing reconstructions of both “Lucy,” a skeleton of an early homo erectus about whom I’ve read for years, and “The Hobbit,” a skeleton I read about probably 10 years ago. The Hobbit is now called homo floresiensus, named after the island of Flores where it was found in Indonesia in 2003, adult stature about 3.5 feet.

Ironically, the whole project is funded by David H. Koch, the billionaire oil and gas man. I’ve read before that he stymies his typically creationist political allies with his dedication to furthering the study of human evolution, and, having now seen what he’s done for us firsthand, I understand why. Thank you, Mr. Koch! I think he must be trying to tip the universal scales of justice back in his favor a little bit or something. Of course digging for bones often yields evidence of other things that end up being more profitable; where there’s oil there’s biomass, and vice-versa!

Within the Hall I found my only musical treasure from yesterday’s touristy exploits – a flute made of mammoth ivory that is 35,000 years old – one of the very oldest musical instruments that anyone knows about. I had no idea we were making music so long ago. I do know that they keep digging up evidence of homo creativity happening earlier and earlier. The unassuming case in which the model of the flute resides sits in a recessed alcove made up like a cave that tries to recreate what the instrument would have sounded like. Charmingly, at 35,000 years old, it’s one of the newest things in David H. Koch hall! These flutists were definitely modern humans.

Gotta love that pre-frontal cortex – adaptation rocks.

Thanks for reading.



  1. I wonder…is it possible that music paved the way for civilization and the modern world? Civilization only seems possible once survival wasn’t a constant struggle. Once ancient people got a drop of leisure time, maybe they started making music, which prompted the growth of new neural networks which eventually turned into the homo sapiens neocortex and paved the way for the Internet and iPhones. Seems plausible, especially with epigenetics. Fun to speculate about, at least!

  2. I’m sure music has been a part of it, but I think the development of language more broadly is really what did it. And it’s an interesting chicken/egg phenomenon, too. Philip Lieberman has done some good work on it – “Uniquely Human” is an older but approachable title on the subject that I used in my MA thesis.

  3. […] friend commented on a post on human origins and the oldest flute in the world a few days ago – she wondered about the impact […]

  4. […] anthropology and evolution – all cultures produce music, all cultures have language – these adaptations must be good for something.  Noted neuroscientist and linguist Steven Pinker, for example, has […]

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