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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: E-commerce Partnerships Manager

£50000 - £100000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a newly-created partne...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Co-Ordinator - FF&E

£35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior FF&E Project Co-ordinator is re...

Recruitment Genius: Part Time Carer / Support Worker plus Bank Support

£10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A delightful, 11 year old boy who lives in t...

Recruitment Genius: Office Furniture Installer / Driver

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Furniture Installer /...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor