The find of a "Neanderthal flute" is certainly one of the archaeological discoveries in Slovenia to have excited the most interest, and to have initiated the most debate. The find in question is the fruit of long-term archaeological-paleontological research in the cave of Divje Babe I, in the Idrijca valley in western Slovenia.
This 45 metre long, horizontal cave is only one of around 6500 Karst caves in the world famous Slovene part of the Dinarid Karst and its underground. Many of these caves are archaeological sites, but few of them are 100 thousand and more years old like the Palaeolithic site of Divje Babe I
The pierced bone, suspected of being a flute, was found in circumstances which do not allow any real doubt about its absolute (c. 45,000 years) or relative age (earlier than the Early Upper Palaeolithic, Cro Magnon man), nor about the possible archaeological context (Middle Palaeolithic, Neanderthal man) in the framework of the European Palaeolithic.
This is despite the fact that Divje Babe I is not classified in European terms as among the richest of Palaeolithic sites (more than 600 archaeological finds in at least ten levels, the remains of 20 hearths, modest remains of hunted animals and enormous remains of cave bear).
The site is thus essentially a combination of typical lair and graveyard of the bear on the one hand, and a classical Palaeolithic cave dwelling on the other, with a series of open questions about the activity of people at the site.
The real challenge for the profession is how to explain the find of, to date, the only femur of a young cave bear pierced in the form of a flute which, on the basis of all the evidence, originates from a time (Middle Palaeolithic) at which neither the technology of working bones nor the necessary artistic (symbolic) behaviour are supposed to have been developed, although weak signals exist for both, the number of which is gradually increasing with new finds.
In explaining the find, the crucial question is the origin of the holes: Are they of natural or artificial origin? In other words, were they made by a carnivore (e.g. cave hyena, cave bear) with their teeth, or by man with technical aids (pointed stone tools used in an appropriate manner)?
For the moment, there seems no other possibility. It has to be said that, on the basis of experiments, it is easier to demonstrate the hypothesis of an artificial (human) than a natural (carnivore) origin of the holes. In either case, it is unfortunate that there are no reliable traces evident on the bone itself, and especially by the holes, of either factor which could provide conclusive evidence.
This, together with damage (broken ends, various scratches, etc.) which occurred subsequently and which may be the cause of all the professional dilemmas, allows sufficient room for all sorts of guesswork. Unfortunately, all such guesswork is more or less unfounded until the key question of natural or artificial origin is resolved.
Ivan Turk © Government Public Relations and Media Office, 1997-2004
INTRODUCTION: Abstract of Longer Article
An ancient bone flute segment, estimated at about 43,ooo up to 82,ooo years old, was found recently at a Neanderthal campsite by Dr. Ivan Turk, a paleontologist at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences in Ljubljana. It's the first flute ever to be associated with Neanderthals and its confirmed age makes it the oldest known musical instrument.
The find is also important for its implications regarding the evolution of musical scales. It's to this latter issue my analysis in the full article is addressed... Holes 2, 3 & 4 on the bone (as shown, from left to right) stand in a significant relationship to each other: The distance between holes 2 and 3 is virtually twice that between holes 3 and 4. The line-up of the holes 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.
In essence, the whole story is simply that.
Sometimes the simplicity of a situation, as outlined just above, is so simple that we are unnecessarily suspicious of the obvious -- that it's just "too easy" to accept it at first glance, and we tend to over-complicate things to avoid appearing hasty. Therefore, many experiments and other approaches were tried, but the simplicity of the issue remained intact.
This is the most powerful practical evidence ever in support of there being a natural foundation to the diatonic scale. It is in line with University of California's (Berkeley) Prof. Anne D. Kilmer's deciphering of the clay tablets, 4,000 years old, from Ur, indicating, in this world's oldest known song, the use of harmony and of the diatonic scale.
It is also confirming of recent psychological studies by Trehub (U. of Toronto), Schellenberg (U. of Windsor), and Kagan (Harvard) of infants. These studies (Vol. 7 #5 Sept '96 of Psychological Science) showed musically untutored infants preferred natural (acoustic) intervals over dissonant intervals.
All of this recent evidence confirms the predictions and views in my 1970 book on the Origin of Music, which outlines the natural forces pushing the diatonic scale into existence.
The remaining hole (left-most first hole in the picture) is the only clue we have to answer the remaining questions, which is really the bulk of the essay's subject. To those questions, as one can read, we have come up with a fit to the Mi, Fa, Sol, La part of a minor scale, which includes a flatted La and a "neutral" third for Mi, widely used in many cultures, sometimes called a "blue" note (match no. 2 in the paper). Another match was also considered viable (no. 1)
. To summarize the remaining questions taken up in the essay: a) Is this remaining hole able to produce yet another diatonic note consistent with the other 3? Within variations of our permitted tolerances, and with clear parallels to human musical history, the answer is yes for any of the matches considered. (See the appendix, quotes & notes for what are acceptable dimensions needed to claim a fit.)
b) Where in the scale will the bone's set of 4 notes fit? We have assumed that the flute plays a larger scale, as it is most unlikely you'd have a scale of only 4 notes without a keynote, or with the first note being the keynote. Since a flute's keynote and its octave-up can already be played without drilling any holes at all, it is safe to assume that the 4 holes made in the bone segment would likely be for additional notes (as in match no. 2).
Only two notes would then remain missing to complete the full scale. One would only drill a separate keynote hole into the marrow if no other exit from the internal hollow of the bone existed (which is remotely possible in the case of match no. 1, if this hole is at the knobby-end of the femur).
c) Which way do the 4 notes run relative to the blow-in end? Is it from the left to right (as is assumed in the paper's drawing), or right to left? (Note: If we had assumed it was the opposite direction from what's shown in the bone drawing, then we'd get the best of all matches so far (which would be a match that is the reverse of match no. 2), namely: Mi(major), Fa, Sol, and La (major) -- all holes measuring within about 1/16 of a tone tolerance.
But this reverse match depends upon whether bone length in that direction would be sufficient to reach the necessary distance to the blow-in end. d) How long was the original flute? 37 centimeters (+1 / -5cm) -- is our present estimate based on empirical measurements of commercial flute-lengths and interpolating these to the bone segment, which may have been extended to reach the required length..
There is a difference between air-column length needed to produce musical notes and the actual (shorter) flute length needed to sustain this oscillating air-column. Our empirical results indicate the flute need be about 87% of the functionally operating air-column of the fundamental keynote..... Source: Neanderthal Flute and the 7 Note Diatonic Scale
Amid much media fanfare, a research team in 1996 trumpeted an ancient, hollowed out bear bone pierced on one side with four complete or partial holes as the earliest known musical instrument. The perforated bone, found in an Eastern European cave, represents a flute made and played by Neandertals at least 43,000 ye us ago, the scientists contended.
Now it's time to stop the music, say two archaeologists who examined the purported flute last spring. On closer inspection, the bone appears to have been punctured and gnawed by the teeth of an animal -- perhaps a wolf -- as it stripped the limb of meat and marrow report, April Nowell and Philip G. Chase, both of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
"The bone was heavily chewed by one or more carnivores, creating holes that became more rounded due to natural processes after burial," Nowell says. "It provides very weak evidence for the origins of [Stone Age] music." Nowell presented the new analysis at the annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society in Seattle last week.
Nowell and Chase examined the bone with the permission of its discoverer, Ivan Turk of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences in Ljubljana (S.N.: 11/23/96, p. 328). Turk knows of their conclusion but still views the specimen as a flute.
Both open ends of the thighbone contain clear signs of gnawing by carnivores, Nowell asserts. Wolves and other animals typically bite off nutrient-rich tissue at the ends of limb bones and extract available marrow. If Neandertals had hollowed out the bone and fashioned holes in it, animals would not have bothered to gnaw it, she says.
Complete and partial holes on the bone's shaft were also made by carnivores, says Nowell. Carnivores typically break open bones with their scissor like cheek teeth. Uneven bone thickness and signs of wear along the borders of the holes, products of extended burial in the soil, indicate that openings made by cheek teeth were at first less rounded and slightly smaller, the researchers hold.
Moreover, the simultaneous pressure of an upper and lower tooth produced a set of opposing holes, one partial and one complete, they maintain.
Prehistoric, carnivore-chewed bear bones in two Spanish caves display circular punctures aligned in much the same way as those on the Slovenian find. In the March Antiquity, Francesco d'Errico of the Institute of Quaternary Prehistory and Geology in Talence, France, and his colleagues describe the Spanish bones.
In a different twist, Bob Fink, an independent musicologist in Canada, has reported on the Internet that the spacing of the two complete and two partial holes on the back of the Slovenian bone conforms to musical notes on the diatonic (do, re, mi. . .) scale.
The bone is too short to incorporate the diatonic scale's seven notes, counter Nowell and Chase. Working with Pennsylvania musicologist Robert Judd, they estimate that the find's 5.7-inch length is less than half that needed to cover the diatonic spectrum.
The recent meeting presentation is "a most convincing analysis," comments J. Desmond Clark of the University of California, Berkeley, although it's possible that Neandertals blew single notes through carnivore-chewed holes in the bone.
"We can't exclude that possibility," Nowell responds. "But it's a big leap of faith to conclude that this was an intentionally constructed flute."
The doubts raised by Nowell and Chase (April 4th, DOUBTS AIRED OVER NEANDERTHAL BONE 'FLUTE') saying the Neanderthal Bone is not a flute have these weaknesses: The alignment of the holes -- all in a row, and all of equivalent diameter, appear to be contrary to most teeth marks, unless some holes were made independently by several animals.
The latter case boggles the odds for the holes ending up being in line. It also would be strange that animals homed in on this one bone in a cave full of bones, where no reports of similarly chewed bones have been made.
This claim is harder to believe when it is calculated that chances for holes to be arranged, by chance, in a pattern that matches the spacings of 4 notes of a diatonic flute, are only one in hundreds to occur .
The analysis I made on the Internet regarding the bone being capable of matching 4 notes of the do, re, mi (diatonic) scale included the possibility that the bone was extended with another bone "mouthpiece" sufficiently long to make the notes sound fairly in tune.
While Nowell says "it's a big leap of faith to conclude that this was an intentionally constructed flute," it's a bigger leap of faith to accept the immense coincidence that animals blindly created a hole-spacing pattern with holes all in line (in what clearly looks like so many other known bone flutes which are made to play notes in a step-wise scale) and blindly create a pattern that also could play a known acoustic scale if the bone was extended. That's too much coincidence for me to accept.
It is more likely that it is an intentionally made flute, although admittedly with only the barest of clues regarding its original condition.
The 5.7 inch figure your article quoted appears erroneous, as the centimeter scale provided by its discoverer, Ivan Turk, indicates the artifact is about 4.3 inches long. However, the unbroken femur would originally have been about 8.5 inches, and the possibility of an additional hole or two exists, to complete a full scale, perhaps aided by the possible thumbhole.
However, the full diatonic spectrum is not required as indicated by Nowell and Chase: It could also have been a simpler (but still diatonic) 4 or 5 note scale. Such short-scale flutes are plentiful in homo sapiens history.
Finally, a worn-out or broken flute bone can serve as a scoop for manipulation of food, explaining why animals might chew on its ends later. It is also well-known that dogs chase and maul even sticks, despite their non-nutritional nature. What appears "weak" is not the case for a flute, but the case against it by Nowell and Chase.