The 10 oldest musical instruments

The origin of music is often related to an explosion of the cognitive capabilities of Homo sapiens 50,000-60,000 years ago: paintings, ornaments and burials are clear evidences from that moment. As part of other artistic and symbolic expressions, music contributed to the maintenance of larger social networks and the expansion of modern humans.

What was the earliest music used for? Some hypotheses are:

  • Part of religious ritual
  • Recreation
  • Motivational activities
  • Identification with a group
  • Communication and coordination
  • Tool for hunting

What are the oldest evicences? 

1) Percussion instruments

The oldest evidence may be found in the archaeological site of Mezin (Ukraine): a set of mammoth bones (scapula, femur) painted with red ochre and a reindeer antler hammer, with signs of repetitive surface damage on all of them. Some interpret these bones as musical instruments. They are dated to 24,000 years BP.

Mammooth scapula from Mezin. Photo: Don Hitchcock

Other instrumens are the ‘bullroarers’ which we find in the Solutrean and Magdalenian periods:


Bullroarers from La Roche (Magdalenian), Abri de Laugerie Basse (Magdalenian), Lespugue (Solutrean), Badegoule (Solutrean). Image: Dauvois M., 1989

2) String instruments

The organic materials are not preserved so the only ancient clues are found in rock art, like a sorcerer with a musical bow in the Trois-Frères cave (France), dated to c. 13,000 years BP. However, some authors consider that the sorcerer actually holds a flute.


Sorcerer from Trois-Frères. Image:

The actual oldest piece is a plucked string instrument known as the ‘se’, dated to 2,700 years old, found in the Chinese province of Hubei. That was a board instrument fitted with 25 strings of twisted silk, which was used by the elite in rituals and sacrificial offerings. Only half of the base was recovered but showing clear evidences of the holes for the strings. At the same site, some rests of a percussion instrument called ‘bianzhong’ were found: a 4.7 m frame for housing bronze bells plus seven bases of the bells.

These 2,000-year-old deer antlers from Go O Chua, Vietnam, are thought to have been used as primitive chordophones, a type of stringed instrument that were once used in the region’s court life, as well as for traditional music. There is a round hole at the end of one antler, which may have been made to fix a peg used to tune a string. The antler also appears to have a polished bridge to support the string. On the other, broken, antler, there are grooves where a taut string might have once been attached.

Primitive chordophones. Credit: F. Z. Campos et al (2023). DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2022.170

3) Wind instruments

Flutes and whistles are more clearly evidenced in the archaeological finds. Below are some remarkable examples:

Divje Babe Cave, Slovenia

One flute found in 1995. It is a fragment of the femur of a cave bear, pierced with three spaced holes. Age 40,000 years. A different hypothesis says the holes lack tool marks and instead were made by an animal chewing. However, the separation between the holes is singular and the instrument can produce diatonic sounds.

Divje Babe

Flute, bone piercing tool and pointed stone tool. Divje Babe. Photo: Archive of the Institute of Archaeology, Slovene Academy of Sciences and Arts

Geissenkloesterle Cave, Germany

Two flutes published in 2012, dated to the Early Aurignacian (at least 35,000 years by radiocarbon and 36,000 years by termoluminiscence). One was shaped from a swan’s ulna bone. It is 12 cm long but thought to be 17 cm long originally. It has 3 holes and produce 4 notes. The other flute was shaped from ivory.

They support the hypothesis that the Danube River was a key corridor used by humans coming into central Europe before expected.


Mammoth flute (L) and bird-bone flute (R) from Geissenkloesterle. Photo: Tom Higham et al / Oxford University / Tübingen University

Hohle Fels, Germany

Only a few weeks after publishing the famous oldest European ‘venus’ figurine from Hohle Fels cave system, various fragments of flutes from the same system were discovered in 2008 and published in 2009. Age between 35,000-43,000 years.

One of them was successfully rebuilt almost entirely from 12 fragments. It is 21,8 cm long and was made with the radius of a griffon vulture wing. It has 5 holes and a V-shaped mouthpiece with 2 small clefts.

Other small pieces were found at Hohle Fels, very fragmented but likely belonging to two other flutes. A third piece was found in the nearby site of Vogelherd.

All of them are made of ivory, which requires much more effort to shape than bird’s bones.


Hohle Fels flute. Photo: H. Jensen

La Güelga, Spain

A phalangeal whistle was found in an Aurignacian level, dated to 30,000-34,000 years BP. Also from this cave is a fragment of flute from the Magdalenian period.


Whistle from La Güelga Cave, Aurignacian. Image: UNED

Isturitz, France

22 fragments of flutes made from swan wing bones, 8 of them are quite complete. They were published in 1991, dated to between 26,000-32,000 years BP.


Isturitz flute. Photo: Buisson, D., 1990

Jiahu, China

A set of 30 flutes made from hollowed bird bones, dated to 9,000 years BP. They have between 5 and 8 holes and one of them is still playable.


Flutes from Jiahu. Photo: Brookhaven National Lab

Cave of Marsoulas, France

A seashell from the decorated cave of Marsoulas was converted into a wind instrument by the Magdalenian occupants of the site, around 18,000 years ago. This is one of the very rare examples, if not the only one for the Paleolithic period, of a musical instrument fashioned from a large shell, and the first conch shell of this use thus far discovered. It was forgotten for more than 80 years after its collection at the cave entrance, until a detailed analysis showed considerable transformations made to enable it to be blown.

Marine shell from Marsoulas cave

Marine shell of Charonia lampas from Marsoulas cave (France). Credit: Fritz C et al (2021)

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