Bone flutes

Paleolithic (Perigordian), about 32,000 years old
From Les Roches and La Roque, Dordogne, France

Bone tubes with holes on one and both sides

The oldest known musical instruments in western Europe appear about 35,000 years ago at the same time as fully modern people like ourselves. Cave paintings, sculpture and jewellery also date from this period.

Flutes carved from bone are the oldest recognizable type of instrument. The example from the rockshelter at Les Roches has two holes. It could have been blown from one end or across one of the holes. To do this one or both ends would have to be blocked with the fingers or an artificial plug such as a piece of leather. One or two notes could then be produced. They would have sounded like a whistle. The sound could have been used as a signal to keep people in contact while out hunting. They could also have been used for pleasure or in ceremonies, perhaps blown rythmically along with drums and singing.

The flute from La Roque is more complex, with five holes on the front and two on the back. With the top end blocked except for a small airway it could have been played like a modern recorder. It is similar to 30,000 year-old flutes made on swan wing bones that have been found at Isturitz, France. However, the rockshelter at La Roque contained 30,000 year-old deposits which had been disturbed more recently in the Middle Ages. As a result its age is uncertain.

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Bone flutes

  • Bone flute

    Bone flute

  • Bone flute (left)

    Bone flute (left)


More information



Length: 12.400 cm
Length: 12.400 cm

Museum number

P&EE Christy Collection

not found on MERLIN

Christy Collection
Bequeathed by W.A. Sturge


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