Flute discovery blows a hole in the Neanderthal myth

FOR MODERN humanity, music may be the food of love - but in its original form it may well have been invented by creatures with a more brutish reputation. A recent archaeological discovery suggests that our species was not the first to make music. Instead, the credit should go to Neanderthal man, the pre-human species that Homo sapiens helped to drive into extinction.

Deep inside a cave in Slovenia, in the north of former Yugoslavia, archaeologists have unearthed the world's oldest true musical instrument - a flute which appears to have been made by Neanderthals around 45,000 years ago.

Broken at both ends, the 5in-long instrument - made out of the leg bone of a young bear - still retains its four finger holes. It was found by the side of a temporary hearth inside a cave near the town of Nova Gorica, adjacent to the Italian frontier, 40 miles west of the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana. Also by the fireplace was a typical Neanderthal flint tool - a scraper, probably for cleaning animal skins. Apart from being the oldest musical instrument in the world, the flute's greatest significance lies in its association with Neanderthal man.

Prior to this discovery, most archaeologists and anthropologists would have doubted Neanderthal man's ability to produce music, let alone make musical instruments. The Slovenian discovery suggests they were able to do both. The unanswered question, however, is whether they thought up the idea for themselves or whether they simply copied the idea from the rival species, our own ancestors, Homo sapiens.

While our species had arrived in eastern Europe around 45,000 years ago, they did not reach central Europe, including Slovenia, for at least another 5,000 years, at the earliest. Given the age of the flute, it therefore seems likely that the Slovenian Neanderthalers learnt to play music all by themselves - a fact that has far-reaching implications for human evolution.

What it suggests is that Neanderthal man was perhaps intellectually closer to modern humans than has previously been accepted. Nor were they necessarily as primitive and technologically backward as many people have thought.

The flute was discovered about 40 feet inside a cave by archaeologist Ivan Turk of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences. Not only is it the oldest such find, but it is also the most sophisticated Stone Age flute found. A two-hole instrument made by Homo sapiens and dating back 35,000 years was unearthed earlier this century in Hungary. And in Libya, in the 1950s, two much older artefacts were discovered, a pair of single-holed Homo sapiens whistles, dating from around 100,000 years ago.

However, the Libyan examples would not have been capable of generating music as such, and probably only served to imitate birds or send signals.

By contrast, this Neanderthal flute could, in theory, have been used to produce a wide range of pentatonic melodies - "real" music.

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