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World's oldest instrument found. And boy, could those cavemen rock.

By Matthew Shaer / June 25, 2009

Professor Nicholas Conard of the University in Tuebingen shows a flute during a press conference in Tuebingen, southern Germany, on Wednesday. The thin bird-bone flute carved some 35,000 years ago and unearthed in a German cave is the oldest handcrafted musical instrument yet discovered, scientists say, and offers the latest evidence that early modern humans in Europe had established a complex and creative culture.

Daniel Maurer/AP

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And you thought Mick Jagger was old.

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Now we have evidence that shaggy-haired musicians were rocking out long before the introduction of the electric guitar, the double bass pedal, or the cow bell. Is it a prehistoric violin? A drum kit made out of boulders? Not quite. The instrument is a 35,000-year-old bone flute unearthed by a team led by Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tubingen, in Germany.

The flute, which was discovered in the same area as the Venus of Hohle Fels, was apparently made from the hollowed-out bones of a vulture. Writing in the latest issue of Nature magazine, Conard and his colleagues, Maria Malina of the Heidelberg Academy of Science and Susanne Munzel of the University of Tubingen, said the find demonstrated "the presence of a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans colonized Europe."

Conard's team excavated the flute in September 2008, the same month they recovered six ivory fragments from the Hohle Fels cave that form a female figurine they believe is the oldest known sculpture of the human form.

Rock of ages

After all the dust had settled, the scientists found small pieces of four flutes – the vulture bone number pictured above, however, is the only complete instrument. Speaking to Alan Boyle at MSNBC, Conard said the find suggests that "modern humans seemed to have had much larger social networks," than previously imagined. In other words, these guys really knew how to let loose. Picture a sprawling drum circle of rocking and rolling musicians, jamming out to the latest number from indie rock all-stars the Arctic Monkeys.

OK, so maybe we're jumping ahead a few thousand years. Still, the find is generating a good deal of interest from music lovers around the globe. "It's unambiguously the oldest instrument in the world," Conard told The Associated Press this week. Since the flute was discovered, Conard created a copy from the same type of bone. According to the AP, he decided against ripping through "Street Fighting Man." Instead, he made a few recordings of more traditional fare, including "The Star-Spangled Banner."

For the next 35,000-year-old flute album, may we suggest a cover of "Rock of Ages"?

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