Ruminating on artifacts from 35,000 years ago

by DRM

Two recent artifacts tickle the imagination and, perhaps, raise some figment of our core essence. They date to 35,000 years ago.

The first is a figurine from the Hohle Fels Cave in southwest Germany. The second are musical instruments from the same site.

I report the discovery of a female mammoth-ivory figurine in the basal Aurignacian deposit at Hohle Fels Cave in the Swabian Jura of southwestern Germany during excavations in 2008. This figurine was produced at least 35,000 calendar years ago, making it one of the oldest known examples of figurative art. This discovery predates the well-known Venuses from the Gravettian culture by at least 5,000 years and radically changes our views of the context and meaning of the earliest Palaeolithic art.

Although arguments have been made for Neanderthal musical traditions and the presence of musical instruments in Middle Palaeolithic assemblages, concrete evidence to support these claims is lacking. Here we report the discovery of bone and ivory flutes from the early Aurignacian period of southwestern Germany. These finds demonstrate the presence of a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans colonized Europe, more than 35,000 calendar years ago.


What possessed the man who scraped away at the fragment of ivory to make this image of a woman, with her ample thighs, delicate calves and preposterous breasts? This took idle time, time away from some other thing, that was industrious and focused. To chip away at the piece of ivory meant finding a piece of stone, scraping it down to an edge, working against the ivory.

What occupied this primitive man’s mind? Thoughts of the weather, the awareness of learning his own consciousness, of finding greater understanding of what a woman was as he scraped and smoothed.

Around him was the thin sound of music, a whistling from the narrrow flute. Another might be banging his palm against the dark dirt in rhythm.

These were people like us. There is nothing different in the way the synapses formed, in the simple chemistry of our beings.


Can we call them primitive? I don’t think so. They were at the beginning of our generations of improvement, of innovating to satisfy the demands that come with the desire to express ourselves, the puzzle of how to make ourselves safe, the confidence that we have a place in the world.

The basis of the human condition is in this figurine and this instrument. I suspect that very little about our essence has changed. All the change has been in response to the evolution of our context.


Images and excerpts from Dienekes Anthropology Blog.