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February 20 2013

The ice-age flute that can play The Star-Spangled Banner


With its jaw-dropping sculptures and carvings of bulbous women and half-human animals, the British Museum's Ice Age Art exhibition is a sublime reminder of the fact that the creativity of homo sapiens predates what we tend to think of as the dawn of civilisation. But for me, the most moving object in the show is one of the least obviously beautiful: a long, thin flute made from the wing-bone of a griffon vulture. Found in the Hohle Fels cave in south-west Germany, it could be 40,000 years old, making it one of the oldest instruments ever discovered. What's so striking about this ancient wind instrument is how familiar it looks. It's basically an ice age penny whistle: anyone can see it's a tool for making music, with its five finger-holes and a V-shaped notch at one end, through which a prehistoric musician would have blown.

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