What if Neanderthals created the world’s first musical instrument? | by Erik Brown | June 2022
Fifty-Thousand-Year-Old Bone Flute Changes An Ancestor’s Perception And Explains Why Music Is A Powerful Force
“Music is the only thing in this crazy world that makes sense to me.”
— Matisyahu, When the Smoke Clears
JThe lyric of the song above is much more than a lyric. This is perhaps the only universal truth for humanity. Every person – regardless of creed, color, shape or flag – has their soundtrack. Music is more than just fun. He animates us, explains us and gives a personal message that resonates in everyone.
He is so representative of our species that NASA even chose him as an interstellar ambassador. In fact, a sample of terrestrial music travels inside the Voyager space probe. There is nothing more fitting when you think about it.
But how does something become so ingrained in a species like ours? Well, you could say that music has evolved with us. But technically, it may have evolved before us; it’s so old.
A team of archaeologists and scientists believe it started with a cousin of modern humans.
In a cave in Slovenia, an interesting bone was discovered. It was intentionally worked. Carefully drilled holes are easy to manipulate with your fingers. With a little imagination and a push of air, it generates sound.
It looks like a simple device, but it creates this all-powerful cement of music that binds all of humanity together. However, it is not ours. Neanderthals probably created this bone flute fifty to sixty thousand years ago.
If true, it’s a monumental overhaul of the mental capacity and culture of extinct modern humans. But before you can consider that, the artifact itself is an interesting story.
“Given the archaeological context and age, the find, if confirmed as an artifact (i.e. a musical instrument), would represent a find of exceptional significance. This would provide strong evidence that Neanderthals were capable of musical expression.
— Journal of Experimental Archeology, Matija Turk and Giuliano Bastiani
According to National Museum of Slovenia, the bone flute was discovered by Ivan Turk’s team in 1995 in the cave of Divje babe, not far from Cerkno. It was originally a den for cave bears. This is all too apt as the instrument is made from the femur of a juvenile cave bear itself.
The article by Matija Turk and Giuliano Bastiani in the Journal of Experimental Archeology (Exarc) also say that the flute was found near a hearth. The original radiocarbon dating gave it an age in the forty thousand year range. However, electron spin resonance (ESR) dating has added ten to twenty thousand years to this.
This dating, and the collection of stone and bone tools at the sediment level, places the flute in the time of the Neanderthals.
Turk and his colleagues immediately noticed two punched holes in the center and two more partial holes, also towards the central part of the artifact. They didn’t look like random marks. It has been modified.
Clearly, such a startling finding sparked controversy.
Only modern humans were thought to be capable of such creativity, not Neanderthals. Also, the “flute” could just be a bone chewed by a random carnivore, the human mind could create the appearance of something bigger.
Giuliano Bastiani and Turk decided to use experimental archeology to examine their hypothesis of the man-made artifact. It is a branch of archeology that tries to reproduce the past through physical experiments, instead of simply examining and inferring.
In their Exarch article, the authors refer to an experiment where they obtained skulls of cave bears, hyenas and wolves, by making dental casts of them. They used them to puncture a mixture of about 30 juvenile and adult bear femurs provided by the hunters. They immediately noticed some problems.
- Wolf and hyena teeth didn’t match the marks on the bones at all
- Cave bear canines matched better, which makes more sense as they were plentiful in the area
- Although the cave bear tooth, jaw shape and bite pressure created its own problems
For the cave bear to make the line marks, the bone should come straight out of its mouth, like a cigar. Its teeth must also continuously strike the same places. Additionally, the impact damage to the bones did not match that caused by the modeled dental casting.
Finally, the compressive forces required for a jawbone to puncture the bone also fractured the test bones, sometimes pulling them apart. Although there was a fracture on the bone flute, scans showed it was superficial, indicating it occurred after the hole was made.
Although the team proved that making the artifact out of animal teeth was virtually impossible, there were still problems convincing members of the scientific community that it was intentionally created by a hominid. Experimental archeology helped here too.
Bastiani and Turk note that many sharp stone tools and blunt bone tools were found on similar sediment layers with the flute. However, microscopic analysis did not show consistency with “conventional maker’s marks (i.e. stone tool ridges and cut marks)”. But the animals didn’t succeed either.
Something must have been missing on the exam.
Bastiani took replicated stone tools like those found in the sediments and pierced a bone through a method that mixed both chiseling and drilling. Half of his attempts showed no cut marks – very similar to the artifact.
He proved that holes could be inserted into bone without the traditional microscopic signs of tooling.
Another archaeologist, FZ Horusitzky, later duplicated the exact markings on the artifact, with no manufacturing marks or cuts. He used a sharp stone tool to punch punctures in the bone, then a blunt bone tool with a wooden hammer to punch a hole. Besides, he could do it quickly.
While this showed that the artifact could be man-made – or in this case, made by Neanderthal man – could it function as a flute?
“On the reconstructed instrument, it was possible to perform a series of articulations and musical ornamentations such as legato, staccato, double and triple tonguing, flutter-tonguing, glissando, chromatic scales, trills, broken chords, leaps of d interval and melodic successions from the lowest to the highest tones.
— Journal of Experimental Archeology, Matija Turk and Giuliano Bastiani
Miran Pflaum du National Museum of Slovenia in a documentary about the flute explains that it was copied in a scanner. Since it was so well preserved, they were able to see what parts were missing and recreated the device with a 3D printer. Musicians and scientists later experimented with it.
Musician Ljuben Dimkaroski turned the device upside down and found a beveled edge that he could use as a mouthpiece. Soon he was performing musical scales (do-re-me-fa, etc.) with the flute, eventually creating his own album (above), which was sold at the museum.
Professor and musician Bostjan Gombac claims that the device is capable of 2.5 octaves and he can play many classical compositions with it. In fact, he even created his own trippy symphony, demonstrating the device’s wide range. He also thinks it could have been used to imitate birds or animals.
Although the reproduced artifact may mesmerize us with sounds from the distant past, it leaves us with a far greater realization. Namely, are our impressions of Neanderthals completely wrong? Could they really be the creators of the mighty force humanity calls music?
The science website IFLscience, recently published an article explaining that the first hand axes in Britain were not created by Homo Sapiens. It turns out that Neanderthals didn’t create them either. The distant ancestors of the Neanderthals created these six hundred thousand year old flint axes.
While we may be tempted to think of pre-modern humans as hairless apes in appearance and mentality; they were much more than that. Our distant cousins were prolific creators. Thus, our apple does not fall far from the tree.
Likewise, this innate attraction to music, which every Homo Sapien shares, has a distant root. It is much older than anyone could have imagined. Nearly sixty thousand years ago, a humanoid creature like us noticed that noise could be generated with punctured bones.
As creators, they made their own instrument and created a series of coordinated sounds that Plato would later call a “soul lifter”. They and us would never be the same again.
If true, this discovery proves to us that Neanderthals were not the stereotype we attribute to them. They were able to express themselves through music. Also, music is such a part of modern humanity because it’s older than us, created by distant cousins.
Keep that in mind the next time you find yourself lost in a song. This place where you travel in your mind has been a home for mankind since the time of the Neanderthals. In fact, we have them to thank.