Robison: Traces of early artists

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(HOST) Recent headlines have inspired commentator Olin Robison to revisit some of his ideas about prehistoric art – and early artists.  

(ROBISON) A few days ago it was announced that  Archaeologists in Europe recently found a five-hole flute in a cave in Southern Germany.    After subjecting it to radiocarbon dating they decided that the flute they found is at least 35,000 years old. They have also concluded that their finding was made either from the hollow wing bone of a mute swan or of a griffon vulture – there seems to be some argument about which one.  Now, just how they will determine which one is a mystery to me; but there it is.   

What it means is that the Neanderthals were fairly sophisticated types.  They are the humanoid creatures who walked parts of the Earth before homosapiens (that would be us) even arrived on the scene.  They not only drew pictures on the walls of their caves, but they also had musical instruments.  Wow!  I don’t know if this floats your boat but it certainly does mine – as well, of course, of the scientific community in Europe.  This is, after all, pretty exciting stuff.

Some time back a three-hole flute was discovered – also in Southern Germany. It was deemed to have been used about 30,000 years ago.  But, alas, radiocarbon dating is not thought to be reliable for things older than that.  Someone in Germany created a replica of the three-hole instrument and discovered that it sounded pretty much like modern flutes.

Almost everything we know or think about these prehistoric creatures is of course conjecture.  But discoveries like this really do fuel the imagination.  It is relatively easy now to think of a group of Neanderthals – perhaps celebrating a successful hunt – sitting around of an evening in their cave listening to music.  Oh, I know that I made that up.  But why not?  After all, someone had to be first.  Perhaps it was them. Who knows?

Today, we can enjoy music whenever we want.  But it wasn’t all that long ago (a couple of hundred years) that most music was performed only once and the only beneficiaries were those physically present – either the royals or the very rich.  And even they had no electronic devices of any kind.  We are indeed lucky.  Occasionally I want to jump and shout – as is occasionally done in some evangelical churches – and say "Thank you, Jesus".

Listening to music is, for some of us, a truly transcendent experience – or at least sometimes that is true.  And then, if we want, we can go out and get a recording of what we have just heard.  No one is suggesting that the Neanderthals could have done that; but at least some of them – we now know- were able from time to time to hear the real thing.

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