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Divje Babe Flute

Neanderthal Musical Instrument
Dated: 58,000-48,000 BC

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Slovenian Divje Babe Flute, a paleolithic musical instrument made by H. neanderthalensis
The Divje Babe Flute. This instrument, reputedly made by Neanderthals, was unearthed at the karst cave of Divje Babe overlooking the Idrijca River in northwestern Slovenia. Image by Petar Milošević. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Summary

The Divje Babe flute is a Stone Age musical instrument, carved from the thigh bone of a cave bear, which was discovered in 1995, in a paleolithic cave in northwestern Slovenia.

It was found embedded in a Mousterian layer of sediments, along with Neanderthal stone tools, and is dated to around 58,000 BC.

This makes it the world's oldest known musical instrument. The date is also significant, because it predates the arrival of modern humans in Europe, by several thousand years. For more, read about the Mandrin Cave in France.

On the face of it, this proves beyond doubt that the flute was a work of Neanderthal art, like the hand stencils in the Cave of Maltravieso (64,700 BC); or the scalariform sign in the Cave of La Pasiega (62,000 BC).

One of the principal archaeologists involved in the find, was Ivan Turk from the University of Ljubljana, whose scholarly research has been essential in establishing the bona fides of the instrument.

The Divje Babe flute is now on public display, as part of the collection of prehistoric art, at the National Museum of Slovenia, in Ljubljana.

Note: The oldest surviving stringed musical instruments are the lyres, made around 2550 BC during the Sumerian culture, and excavated from the Ur death pits during the 1920s.

Controversy

There is a major divide within the archaeological community, concerning the cognitive capability of Neanderthals to create sophisticated works of art, such as figurative cave paintings, rock engravings, sculpture and musical instruments.

As a result, the discovery of the flute has triggered a range of contrary views, from scepticism to outright rejection.

Since the archaeological context and chronostratigraphic position of the artifact provide very strong evidence that it was made by Neanderthal hands, the sceptics have focused on artifact itself - namely, the origin of its holes.

They claim that conventional signs of tool use are lacking and that the holes were likely made by animals gnawing on the bone.

Other sceptics believe the flute was made by moderns. This is because a number of other perforated bones have been found in the region, all of which - according to the paleontologist Mitja Brodar - date to the end of the Mousterian, after 40,000 BC.

A case in point are the perforated bones found in the Potočka zijalka cave, which have been ascribed to Cro-Magnons, the European sub-species of modern humans.

Location and Discovery

The Divje Babe flute was found at the Divje Babe I cave (the name means 'Witch Cave'), a horizontal limestone cavity, set in wooded, hilly terrain near Cerkno, in northwestern Slovenia.

Situated about 200 metres above the valley floor, the cave is roughly 45 metres in length and up to 15 metres wide. It overlooks the Idrijca River which cuts through the Idrija and Cerkno Hills, and joins the Soča River.

During the Lower Paleolithic era, Divje Babe I hosted a den of cave bears, but during the last 100,000 years it was also visited, and later occupied by people - to begin with, Neanderthals, and afterwards anatomically modern humans.

Excavation

Divje Babe I was excavated by Mitja Brodar (1978-1986), and by Ivan Turk and Janez Dirjec (1989-1995). They were supported by the Institute of Archaeology at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

The excavations identified 26 sediment layers.

The flute was found in layer 8, which is attributed to the Middle Paleolithic Mousterian culture - a tool industry associated primarily with Neanderthals.

The Mousterian layer contained a quantity of stone tools, as well as twenty fire pits.

The instrument was embedded in the earth next to one of the pits.

Directly above the Mousterian layer, was a 2-metre layer of sediment. This acted as a barrier, between the Mousterian layer and another layer on top, attributed to the Aurignacian culture, which is associated with modern humans.

In total, the cave has yielded more than 600 archaeological items from ten or more levels.

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Dating

The age of the flute was initially calculated on the basis of the AMS radiocarbon age of the charcoal in the fire pit, which worked out at roughly 41,000 BC.

But later, when the more powerful electron spin resonance (ESR) dating method was used, the flute was dated between 58,000 and 48,000 BC.

It is about 20,000 years older than other known flutes, made by modern humans. One of the oldest, is the specimen made from a vulture bone, which was recovered from the Hohle Fels cave in Germany - dating to 34,000 BC. See also, the famous Venus of Hohle Fels (38,000 BC).

For information about dating techniques applicable to animal bone artifacts, see: Dating Methods in Archaeology.

The Divje Babe Flute

The flute consists of an 11-centimetre fragment of thigh bone, from a young cave bear. It has four recessed holes on the front side - two of which are intact - and one on the back.

Ever since its discovery, scientists have tried to ascertain whether the holes were made by a deliberate human act, or by an animal simply chewing on the bone.

The holes of Upper Palaeolithic flutes fashioned from mammal bones, typically contain clear traces of cut-marks from the use of stone tools. But the edges of the holes in the Divje Babe flute appear to have none of these conventional cut marks.

Experimental Tests

Ivan Turk, the lead archaeologist at Divje Babe I, has conducted extensive experiments to determine whether the 'flute' is an artifact or simply a gnawed bone.

The results of the tests have ruled out action by animals.

In addition, the experiments show how the Neanderthals made the holes in the flute. They used a pointed stone tool to carve a small hollow in the bone, which was then pierced with a bone punch.

Also, an examination of the 'flute' using computed tomography (CT scans) showed that the two intact holes on the front face of the instrument, were created before the damage to the other two holes, which itself was by animal action.

Meantime, musical experiments have confirmed that the size and the position of the holes are not accidental, but were made with the intention of musical expression.

Additional musical tests performed on an exact replica of the flute, have shown the instrument is superior to the other reconstructed paleolithic musical instruments.

On a lighter note, Ljuben Dimkaroski, an academic musician who collaborated with Ivan Turk to construct an exact replica of the original artifact, christened the flute the Tidldibab.

This is not to say that the critics have been silenced. Far from it. But the bulk of the experimental tests conducted, point to only one conclusion: namely, that the bone is in fact a Neanderthal flute, which dates to the Mousterian era - well before the era of Upper Paleolithic art created by moderns.

The National Museum of Slovenia has concluded that the evidence has finally refuted the claims that the bone was perforated by an animal, and that the role of Neanderthals in its creation is secure.

Other Prehistoric Flutes

Isturitz cave is best known for its series of prehistoric bone flutes dating to between 35,000 and 10,000 BC.

To see how the Divje Babe flute fits into the evolution of Stone Age culture, see: Timeline of Prehistoric Art.

For the oldest musical stringed instruments, please see Mesopotamian Art for details of the 'lyres of Ur.'

References

(1) Chase, Philip G.; Nowell, April (1998). "Taphonomy of a Suggested Middle Paleolithic Bone Flute from Slovenia". Current Anthropology. 39 (4): 549–53.
(2) Edgar, Blake (1998). "Could Neanderthals Carry a Tune?". California Wild. California Academy of Sciences. 51 (3 [Summer]).
(3) d’Errico, F. Villa, P., Pinto Llona, A.C.P., Idarraga, R.R.A. 1998, Middle Palaeolithic origin of music? Using cave-bear bone accumulations to assess the Divje Babe I bone “flute”. Antiquity 72, 65–79.
(4) Chase, Philip G.; Nowell, April (2002). "Is a cave bear bone from Divje Babe, Slovenia, a Neanderthal flute?" In Hickmann, Ellen; Kilmer, Anne Draffkorn; Eichmann, Ricardo (eds.). Studies in Music Archaeology III, Part I. ISBN 978-3-89646-640-2.
(5) Fink, Bob, 2002-3, "The Neanderthal flute and origin of the scale: fang or flint? A response," in: Ellen Hickmann, Anne Draffkorn Kilmer and Ricardo Eichmann (Eds.), Studies in Music Archaeology III, Verlag Marie Leidorf GmbH., Rahden/Westf. Germany, pp 83–87.
(6) Matija Turk, Ivan Turk, Ljuben Dimkaroski, Bonnie A.B. Blackwell, François Zoltán Horusitzky, Marcel Otte, Giuliano Bastiani, Lidija Korat. "The Mousterian Musical Instrument from the Divje babe I cave (Slovenia): Arguments on the Material Evidence for Neanderthal Musical Behaviour." L'Anthropologie. Volume 122, Issue 4, September–October 2018, Pages 679-706.
(7) Turk, M., Turk, I., Otte, M. 2020, The Neanderthal musical instrument from Divje Babe I Cave (Slovenia): a critical review of the discussion. Applied sciences 10 (4): 1226, 1-11.

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