Listen to (what may be) the world’s oldest known musical instrument – a flute/object made of bear femur


Last time around we talked about two modern recreations of the world’s oldest song, with the original hymn being inscribed (composed of cuneiform signs) on a 3,400 year-old clay tablet found in northern Syria. Well this time around we once again tread the musical path with what may be the world’s oldest known instrument for playing music. The object in question here refers to a curious specimen made of bear femur that was discovered inside a Neanderthal campsite in 1995, by Dr. Ivan Turk, a paleontologist at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences.

Now in terms of dating, the object is anywhere between 43,000 to 82,000 years old. But even beyond the dates, it is the implication that Neanderthals could produce music, is what has instigated various manners of debate in both the archaeological and academic worlds. How so? Well according to conventional notion, music has always been touted as an intrinsic feature of culture as we know it. And many academics believe it is this collective element of ‘culture’ that had given the modern-humans (Homo sapiens) an advantage over their now-extinct Neanderthal-human (Homo neanderthalis) brethren. Simply put, according to these scholars and researchers, music was probably the invention of modern-humans as opposed to the Neanderthals.

Delving into credibility, early humans were indeed found to be proponents of music, as was evidenced from the discovery of a vulture-bone flute found (in 2008) in a Stone Age cave, at Hohle Fels, in southern Germany. Complemented by fragments of mammoth-ivory flutes, the 40,000-year old artifacts pretty much proved that early humans enjoyed some form of musical scope as an extension of their culture. However, on the other hand, it should also be noted that we still have much to learn about their cousins – the Neanderthals and their proto-cultural achievements.

For example, as we discussed in one of our recent articles, the modern-humans not only engaged in active inter-breeding with the Neanderthals (as genome sequencing of Neanderthals proved in 2010), but they probably did so much earlier than previously thought (around 100,000 years ago). And even beyond generalized trends, the Neanderthal ‘instrument’ in question here does showcase some design patterns that can be possibly identified with the scope of producing music.

Musicologist Bob Fink made a very detailed analysis of this curious artifact by comparing its craft with potential musical ambit. This is what he had to say in the opening sentences of his fascinating assessment –

The line-up of the holes [in the object] indicate that it is a flute. This means we are looking at a whole-tone and a half-tone somewhere within a scale. Such a combination of whole-tone and half-tone is the heart and soul of what makes up 7-note diatonic scales. Without making even one more measurement beyond this, we can already conclude: These three notes on the Neanderthal bone flute are inescapably diatonic and will sound like a near-perfect fit within ANY kind of standard diatonic scale, modern or antique. We simply cannot conceive of it being otherwise, unless we deny it is a flute at all.

The curator of the Slovenian National Museum took this assessment one step further by reconstructing a replica of the Neanderthal ‘flute’ in malleable clay. The video below demonstrates the ‘would be’ musical capacity of this pre-historic object, with the replica being played by Slovenian musician Ljuben Dimkaroski. Intriguingly enough, the artist was able to musically render well-known pieces from renowned composers like Beethoven, Verdi and Ravel. In any case, this musical recreation shouldn’t be viewed as a ‘definite’ evidence that Neanderthals indeed produced music – but the fascinating possibility of such a scenario can’t entirely be denied (as mentioned by Dr. Ivan Turk himself).

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  • Michael Baizerman

    An amazing discovery which can kick off an interesting discussion about the musical skills of the Neanderthals.

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