What is the oldest musical instrument in the world and where is it from?

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Answered by: Sylvia, An Expert in the Instruments Category
Although many nations have shaped the diverse and dynamic array of musical instruments known and played today, a unique position belongs to Slovenia, home of the oldest musical instrument, the Neanderthal Flute.

The Neanderthal Flute is a flute fragment dated back to the Late Pleistocene (sometimes referred to as the Ice Age), and its age is guessed to be 43,100 years, making it the oldest known instrument for creating music in the world. It was discovered in 1995 at Slovenia's oldest and largest archaeological site, Divje Babe, by Slovenian archaeologist Ivan Turk. The presumed flute is the bone of a one- or two-year-old cave bear and measures just over 13 cm (approx. 5 ft.). Two of its holes have remained intact, and there are remains of another hole on each end, so the flute may have had four or more holes before it was broken.

Other musical instruments from this era include whistles, bull-roarers, scrapers, and drums.

The flute, as all musical instruments in Pleistocene, may have been used for several different purposes. Music originally developed to fulfil the human desire to imitate the sounds and rhythms occurring in nature. Use of the flute may also have been connected to shamanistic beliefs and practises, such as burial of the dead, as well as for practical purposes (luring and hunting animals, communication between members of tribes) and entertainment (games, child play).

Since its discovery more than 20 years ago, there has been much dispute about the authenticity and purpose of the Neanderthal Flute. If it was truly created in the Late Pleistocene, it would constitute uniquely concrete evidence of the quality of music and culture practised in that distant era. However, objections have been made regarding its age. Moreover, some researchers believe that although the bone itself may come from the Late Pleistocene, the holes may have been created much later, and may even be the puncture marks of carnivore teeth, rather than artificial finger holes for creating music. Nevertheless, prehistoric flutes are not rare. Many hundreds have been found at various sites across Europe and around the world, notably in France and China, though none as old as the Neanderthal Flute. Some Chinese flutes are known to be around 9,000 years old, while others, found in caves in Germany, have been estimated as 35,000 years old.

The Neanderthal Flute remains on display at the National Museum of Slovenia in Ljubljana, and is the source of patriotic pride. The sound of a clay replica may be heard on the Slovenian national website. The replica has also been played by notable Slovenian musicians and by experts on prehistoric musicology. Recordings are publicly available - one such recording was made by Jelle Atema, Professor of Biology and Adjunct Scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Whatever its true origin may be, the Neanderthal Flute has officially been accepted as the oldest musical instrument by the scientific community. It provides a mystic connection to the past and is a testimony of the prehistoric music that could once be heard in primal communities. It is proof that music is a part of our human nature, regardless of time or place, and as such, is too significant to be disregarded or ignored.

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