A fifty-thousand-year-old bone flute changes perceptions of an ancestor, 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
The lyric from the song above is much more than a lyric. It may be the one universal truth for humanity. Every person — independent of creed, color, shape, or flag — has their soundtrack. Music is more than a simple pleasure. It drives us, explains us, and gives a personal message that resonates within all.
It’s so representative of our species, NASA even chose it as an interstellar ambassador. In fact, a sample of Earth music travels within the space probe Voyager. There’s nothing more appropriate when you think about it.
But how does something become so engrained with a species such as us? Well, you might say music evolved with us. But technically it may have evolved before us; it’s that ancient.
One team of archeologists and scientists believes it started with a cousin to modern humans.
Within a cave in Slovenia an interesting bone was discovered. It was purposely worked. Holes punched through it with care are easily manipulated by fingers. With a bit of imagination and a push of air, it generates sound.
It has the appearance of a simple device, but it creates that all powerful glue of music which bonds all of humanity. However, it’s not ours. Neanderthals likely created this bone flute anywhere from fifty to sixty thousand years ago.
If true, it’s a monumental revision of the mental capacity and culture of extinct modern humans. But before we can consider this, the artifact itself is an interesting story.
“Considering the archaeological context and age, the find would, if it was confirmed as an artefact (i.e. a musical instrument) represent a discovery of exceptional significance. It would provide strong evidence that Neanderthals were capable of musical expression.”
— Journal of Experimental Archeology, Matija Turk and Giuliano Bastiani
According to the National Museum of Slovenia, the bone flute was discovered by Ivan Turk’s team in 1995 in the Divje babe cave, not far from Cerkno. It was originally a den for cave bears. This is all too fitting because the instrument is made from the femur of a juvenile cave bear itself.
Matija Turk and Giuliano Bastiani’s article in the Journal of Experimental Archeology (Exarc) also say the flute was found near a hearth. Original radiocarbon dating gave it an age within the forty-thousand-year-old range. However, Electron spin resonance (ESR) dating added anywhere from ten to twenty-thousand years onto this.
This dating, and the collection of stone and bone tools in the sediment level, put the flute at the time of the Neanderthals.
Turk and his colleagues immediately noticed two perforated holes down the center, and two other partial holes, also towards the central part of the artifact. They didn’t have the appearance of random marks. It was modified.
Obviously, such a startling conclusion attracted controversy.
Only modern humans were thought to be capable of such creativity, not Neanderthals. Furthermore, the “flute” could just be a bone chewed by a random carnivore, the human mind might be creating the appearance of something greater.
Giuliano Bastiani and Turk decided to use experimental archeology to examine their hypothesis about the artifact being manmade. This is a branch of archeology that tries to replicate the past by physical experiment, instead of just examination and inference.
In their Exarc article, the authors refer to an experiment where they got the skulls of cave bears, hyaenas, and wolves, making dental casts of them. They used these to pierce a mixture of about thirty juvenile and adult bear femurs supplied by hunters. They immediately noticed some issues.
- Wolf and hyaena teeth didn’t match the marks on the bones at all
- Cave bear canine teeth were a better match, which makes more sense because they were plentiful in the area
- Although the cave bear tooth, jaw shape, and bite pressure created its own issues
For the cave bear to make the marks inline, the bone would need to be sticking straight out of its mouth, like a cigar. Its teeth also need to continually strike the same spots. Furthermore, impact damage on the bones didn’t match that done by the modeled dental cast.
Finally, compression forces needed by a jaw to puncture the bone also fractured the test bones, sometimes splitting them apart. While there is a fracture on the bone flute, scans have shown it to be superficial, indicating it occurred after the hole was made.
While the team proved animal teeth making the artifact was virtually impossible, there were still issues convincing members of the scientific community it was created by a hominid intentionally. Experimental archeology helped here too.
Bastiani and Turk note that many pointed stone tools and blunted bone tools were found on similar sediment layers with the flute. However, microscopic analysis didn’t show consistencies with “conventional manufacture marks (i.e. striations and cut marks of stone tools).” But animals didn’t make it either.
Something had to be missing in the examination.
Bastiani took replicated stone tools like those found in the sediment and pierced a bone through a method that mixed both chiseling and piercing. Half of his attempts showed no cut marks — very similar to the artifact.
It proved holes could be put into bone without traditional microscopic signs of tooling.
Another archeologist F. Z. Horusitzky later duplicated the marks on the artifact exactly with no manufacture marks or cuts. He used a sharp stone tool to punch perforations into the bone, then a blunt bone tool with a wooden hammer to punch out a hole. Furthermore, he could do it quickly.
While this showed the artifact could be man — or in this case Neanderthal-made — could it function like a flute?
“On the reconstructed instrument, it was possible to perform a series of musical articulations and ornamentations such as legato, staccato, double and triple tonguing, flutter-tonguing, glissando, chromatic scales, trills, broken chords, interval leaps, and melodic successions from the lowest to the highest tones.”
— Journal of Experimental Archeology, Matija Turk and Giuliano Bastiani
Miran Pflaum of the National Museum of Slovenia in a documentary about the flute explains it was copied in a CT scan. Since it was so well preserved, they could see what parts were missing and recreated the device with a 3D printer. Musicians and scientists experimented with it afterwards.
Musician Ljuben Dimkaroski turned the device upside down and found a beveled edge 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 is sold at the museum.
Professor and musician Bostjan Gombac says the device is capable of 2.5 octaves and he can play many classic compositions with it. In fact, he even created his own trippy symphony, demonstrating the device’s wide range. He also believes it could’ve been used to mimic birds or animals.
While the replicated artifact may mesmerize us with sounds of the distant past, it leaves us with a far greater realization. Namely, are our impressions of the Neanderthals completely wrong? Could they truly be the creators of the powerful force humanity calls music?
The science website IFLscience, recently posted an article explaining the earliest hand axes in Britain weren’t created by Homo Sapiens. Turns out Neanderthals didn’t create them either. Distant ancestors of 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 far more than this. Our distant cousins were prolific creators. So, our apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
Similarly, that innate attraction to music, which every Homo Sapien shares, has a distant root. It’s far older than anyone could have imagined. Sometime near sixty-thousand-years ago, a humanoid creature like us noticed noise could be generated with perforated bones.
Being a creator, they made their own instrument and blew into existence a series of coordinated sounds which Plato would later refer to as a “soul lifter.” They, along with us would never be the same.
If true, this discovery proves to us Neanderthals weren’t the stereotype we assign to them. They were capable of expression through music. Furthermore, music is such a part of modern humanity because it’s older than us — created by distant cousins.
Keep this in mind next time you find yourself lost in a song. That place you travel to in your mind has been a home for humanity since the time of the Neanderthals. In fact, we have them to thank for it.