MOUSSTERIAN ARCHAEOLOGY SITE NEAR
IDRIJA IN SLOVENIA
Who Made the Neanderthal
Story of the Debate
One of the notable finds at
Divje Babe in 1995 is the putative 50,000 year-old flute, known as the
Neanderthal Flute. It is a juvenile cave bear femur, broken
at both ends, but showing 4 holes in line.
Found in 1995 by Ivan Turk
in Slovenia, at the Divje Babe site, the juvenile cave bear femur bone,
known as the Divje Babe flute, was a major find of recent times.
The reason for that was because it provided significant
evidence that Neanderthals may have been the equal of Homo Sapiens in the
evolution of humankind. It became the oldest known musical instrument,
and the first known instance of a diatonic musical scale sequence.
But soon after it was found, in 1998, the theory was
put forward, most notably by taphonomist Francesco d'Errico et al,
as well as Philip Chase and April Nowell, that the bone, with four
holes in a line, was not a flute, but was a natural object fashioned
by random bites from ancient carnivores.
The debate was on. Others entered the debate, and the
archaeological and paleo-anthropological community was split. The views
of major participants are set out in this article.
Musicologist Bob Fink wrote an essay
the year before claiming the bone's holes were "consistent with
four notes of the diatonic (do, re, mi) scale," based on the spacing
of those four holes. The spacing of the holes on a modern diatonic flute
(minor scale) are unique, and not evenly spaced. In essence, Fink said,
they are like a simple fingerprint. The Divje Babe bone's holes matched
those spacings very closely to a series of note-holes in a minor scale.
Nowell and Chase in 1998 took issue with Fink's claim
the flute matched the tones do, re, mi, fa. Nowell and Chase wrote in Studies
In Music Archaeology III (presentations at a 2000 world conference
on music archaeology) that the juvenile bear bone was too short to play
those four holes in-tune to any diatonic series of tones and
Blake Edgar -- associate editor of California Wild, journal of the California Academy of Sciences, in an interview with April Nowell [Summer, 1998, Vol 51:3], wrote that Nowell, "along with archeologist Philip Chase, had serious doubts as soon as they saw photos of the bone on the Internet.... The Divje Babe bone bears some resemblance to the dozens of younger, uncontested bone flutes from European Upper Paleolithic [UP] sites. But, says Nowell, these obvious flutes are longer, have more holes, and exhibit telltale tool marks left from their manufacture. No such marks occur on the bear bone. Canadian musicologist Bob Fink proposed that the spacing of the flute's holes matches music's standard diatonic scale. ...Nowell and Chase teamed with a more musically inclined colleague to show that the bear bone would need to be twice its natural total length to conform to a diatonic scale....."
Fink's essay had a passage which originally acknowledged the
length required when he suggested there may have been a mouthpiece extension
added to the bone before it was found broken at both ends.
In addition, three separate museum curators (Prague National Museum;
Treasures of the Earth; Birmingham Zoo), experienced with cave bears bones, were quoted
from 1997 (in the 2003 proceedings book, Studies in Music Archaeology III," and
in the original Fink essay, cited below), that an unbroken juvenile cave bear femur,
in any event, would have been long enough to meet the "in-tune"
playing length requirements proposed by Chase & Nowell.
The length was confirmed again in July 1997 (
in the Museum-L archives of July 10, 1997) by Patrick
Boylan who checked the usual lengths of yearling cub femurs in the large collections
of cave bear bones at the Prague museum. Boylan wrote:
"There is not the slightest doubt about the authenticity of the piece. I first followed up Bob Fink's appeal for info. on the likely minimum length of the juvenile Cave bear (Ursus speleaus) - in relation to the possible range of notes - with work on the large collections in Prague in March.
Then in April I saw the recently excavated Neanderthal flute itself in the National Museum in Ljubljana, Slovenia - no doubt about either provenance or what it is - or its date: between 40,000 and 45,000 radiocarbon years.
The museum has also made an exact copy to play, a recording of which is
played in the exhibition. As worked out by Bob Fink, from the mathematics of the piece, it plays what we like to think of as the modern Western musical scale - in a minor key."
The Bone's Marks and Appearance
All parties agreed that the bone has been chewed, especially
at the ends, but the ongoing dispute centers about when chewing
occurred, whether during, after or before the larger holes were made.
The issue of bone marrow is also very important in the
tapohonomy of the presumed flute, because making flutes from bone usually
includes removing the marrow. Turk, et al (in the monograph
Moussterian Bone Flute, p. 160) wrote:
"The marrow cavity is basically cleaned of spongiose.
The colour of the marrow cavity does not differ from the colour of the
external surface of the bone. So we may conclude that the marrow cavity
was already open at the time.... Otherwise, it would be a darker colour
than the surface of the bone, as we know from coloured marrow cavities
of whole limb bones."
On the marrow issue: April Nowell was interviewed (in
California Wild -- Journal of the California Academy of Sciences,
Summer, 1998, Vol 51:3, "Could Neandertals Carry a Tune?"):
"At Turk's invitation, [Nowell] and Chase went
to Slovenia last year.... They came away even more skeptical that the bear
bone had ever emitted music. For one thing, both ends had clearly been
gnawed away by something, perhaps a wolf, seeking greasy marrow. The holes
could have simply been perforated in the process by pointed canine or carnassial
teeth, and their roundness could be due to natural damage after the bone
was abandoned. The presence of marrow suggests that no one had bothered
to hollow out the bone as if to create an end-blown flute. Says Nowell,
'[Turk's] willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, whereas we're not.'
An additional examination in 2006 described by Ivan Turk et al, using a technique of "multi-slice computer
tomography imaging" has produced results that indicate most or all holes were made before any carnivore
damage. The damage was cited to indicate marrow was present, but the tomography results now challenge that
The issue whether the holes could have been bitten more
than one at a time or separately is not in dispute: The tooth spans were
checked by all taphonomists concerned to see if any animals could bite
two or more such holes at once. If anyone had found a match to any animals,
that could've been cited as prima facia evidence that carnivores
made the object. However, all have agreed the holes did not match any animal's
tooth span. No two or more holes could've been made by one bite. This was
noted by Turk et al, in his monograph, and noted from the
opposing viewpoint by Nowell and Chase in their Current Anthroplogy
article in the Aug-Oct 1998 issue.
While the taphonomists disagreed about the bone's scarce
markings, the bone has become a noted attraction in its Slovenian museum,
publicized on official Slovenian websites and is a source of pride in Slovenia.
In the West, paintings were made, models constructed, and musicians, like
Biology Professor and flautist Jelle Atema have played them at conventions
of flautists and of scientists. New books on related subjects by other
scholars have since been published, accepting the bone as the oldest flute
known. (Search Amazon.com). Many University webpages of professors and
science teachers have maintained webpages about the flute.
Although just looking at the flute shows that it looks
virtually identical to any other flute from prehistoric times, many taphonomists
often distrust or dismiss "looks" or prima facia
Using O's to represent holes in the Divje Babe flute,
there is this arrangement of holes (approx):
As the holes are clearly not equally spaced, one
can think they are a random arrangement, because random or
chance measurements are usually unequal and patternless. However, the unequal
spacing cannot be assumed automatically to be random, because
(as agreed by all in the debate), the holes are also:
1. Lined-up, four in a row, and also:
2. Have similar sized diameters, and:
3. Are nearly all circular (unlike bites which are
4. And like a flute, the holes fit the size of fingertips,
and exist on a hollow-bore cylindrical bone.
Those four facts indicate features that are not random, that is, suggesting human design and do not square
with the 5th fact of unequal spacing, which appears to be caused randomly.
Then in 1999 Fink was invited to write a rebuttal
to d'Errico, Nowell, et al, which was published 2003 in Studies
in Music Archaeology III in which he outlined a simple probability analysis
on whether it was reasonable to believe the bone was random actsof nature mimicking a flute.
The calculation concluded 7 million different random ways exist for four
hole arrangements on any similar length and diameter cylinder as the Divje
Babe bone to appear without looking like a flute with lined-up holes.
Below is a picture of one possible variant of non-flute-like random holes:
This result doesn't mean there is room on the surface for 7 million
holes. Just moving one hole either a quarter-inch left, right, up and/or
down can produce 4 new arrangements. A somewhat simpler example (line-up
only) is like a slot machine with 4 wheels, each with 10 symbols of plums,
cherries, roses, spades, clubs etc. Spin the wheel and the window shows
4 symbols, but the number of possible different arrangements, without using
any new space, would be 10,000. Only 10 results would show a line-up of
all 4 of any symbol.
Without using any complicated diagrams, or complex mathematics,
or relying on knowledge of music and musical terms, a simplified version
of the analysis follows. In addition, evidence is summarized from the findings
of Ivan Turk et al, d'Errico et al, Chase and
Nowell, and others.
Fink's probability analysis, showing the bone matched
the spacing of a known world-wide musical scale sequence, also addressed
the question: How likely is that sequence able to occur due to natural
The actual calculation: Fink explained that
on a cylinder about the size of the Divje Babe bone, four holes can be
made in-line. While keeping the four holes still lined-up in a row, if
any one or more of the holes' locations is moved left or right by 1/4 inch
or more, then the four holes, as a set, can accumulate about 680 spacing
patterns that do not signify a musical scale nor anything else known or
which seems clearly purposeful. To understand this visually, here are just
five cylinders or flutes, showing five variants out of all the ways to make different arrangements, pictured below:
Only a few would match other musical scale formations
or be equally spaced, and these were subtracted in the calculation. [The
standard permutation formula used in this analysis, based on the Turk-estimated
length of the juvenile cave bear bone, was 17!/(14! 3!) = 680.] Further:
If one or more holes is moved up or down the same 1/4
inch, each move will cause the four holes to go visually out-of-line, as a set,
and no longer seem flute-like. There are about 10 possible such places
around the Divje Babe bone diameter. That's 10 ways to be "out of
line" just moving one hole. As there are four holes that each could
be placed up or down 10 different ways, that gives this probability calculation,
as follows, using ordinary multiplication: 10 times 10 times 10 times 10,
which equals 10,000 ways for the four holes to not be like
Each of the 680 horizontal spacings can themselves have 10,000 ways to thus be put vertically out-of-line. Therefore: The calculation concludes by multiplying the 10,000 by
680, giving 6,800,000 or as said above, close to 7 million different ways in which random
arrangements of four holes can appear -- on any similar length and diameter
cylinder as is the Divje Babe bone -- without looking like a flute with
Conversely, the study concludes extreme improbability exists. Only
a few chances in several million exist that random bites will line-up
in a known and unique scale spacing. Consider additional odds against all
four holes having similar-sized diameters; their roundness, and for nature
imitating other flute-like features, then there are even fewer chances
all that can be caused from four carnivore bites, separately-made. (Nowell
et al, 2003; d'Errico, et al, 1998) .
Opponents of the view that the bone is a flute have, since 2000, offered
no rebuttals to that probability analysis, nor any explanation for the line-up of the holes, nor
for why this object has so many features like a flute simply
due to chance processes. They retain the view that its being a natural
object is "probable."
A Summary of Further Taphonomic Observations
al, Marcel Otte; D'Errico; Chase and Nowell
Turk's 1997 monograph reported the holes have similar
diameters; they all fit fingertips; all are circular instead of oval (like
most carnivore bites would appear if the holes were made that way). Further,
all are in the proper ratio of bore size to hole size found in most flutes;
and all are on the kind of bone (femur) usually used for ancient flutes.
If calculations could be made of the additional odds for the chance existence
of those orderly patterns (instead of seeing something less orderly), the
odds that chance biting of holes making a flute look-alike would be even
smaller, perhaps only a one-in-trillions possibility.
Turk conducted laboratory experiments which pierced holes
in fresh bear bones in the manner of carnivore punctures, and in every
case, the bones split. Turk wrote, in his monograph
and in his article in MIT's Origins of Music anthology, the
bone shows no "counter-bites" that one would normally expect
on the other side of the bone matching the immense pressure necessary for
a bite to make the holes. And in the Divje Babe instance, the bone did
not break, a fact not matching expectations of carnivore efforts,
as Turk's results showed.
Marcel Otte (director of the Museum of Prehistoire,
Universite de Liege, Belgium) pointed out in an April 2000 Current
Anthropology article pointed out there was a possible thumb-hole
on the opposite side of the Divje Babe bone, which, making 5 holes, will
perfectly fit a human hand.
In the analysis by d'Errico et al, (in Antiquity
journal, March 1998), they used cave-bear bone accumulations, where
no hominid presence was known, to interpret the Divje Babe I bone. They
published photos of several bones with holes in them, which had more or
less "circular" holes that were similar to any one of the holes
found in the Divje Babe bone. Noting that these holes could therefore be
produced by animals, and be similar to Divje Babe holes, they concluded
by this comparative method that the holes in the Divje Babe bone could
likewise have been made by animals. This was the conclusion before d'Errico
ever examined the bone first-hand.
In 2000, d'Errico did finally go to Divje Babe, and did tests
and analyses on the putative flute and at the Divje Babe site itself. D'Errico
et al, concluded, in the only comment on the row of holes
in Divje Babe (in Journal of World Pre-history Vol 17, #1, March
2003) that "The presence of two or possibly three perforations on
the suggested flute cannot therefore be considered as evidence of human
manufacture, as this is a common feature in the studied sample."
Proponents of the bone being a flute continue to point
out that in the d'Errico, et al 1998 Antiquity
article, none of the bones referred to or photographed by
d'Errico et al, had a "common feature" of 3 or more holes being lined-up,
especially with virtually circular or equal diameters, as in Divje Babe's
disputed bone. In the further study in 2003, no photos or descriptions
from the visit to Slovenia showed any further bones examined having 3 or
more lined-up holes either. The Divje Babe femur's line-up of holes, if made by
chance, still remains unique (not a "common"
feature as twice implied in d'Errico's writing below), and remains unaddressed
by those favouring the carnivore origin of the object.
The latest viewpoint by d'Errico et al, here
given in full, is as follows:
"A well-known example of a controversial
musical instrument is that of the so-called Neandertal flute from Divje
Babe Cave in Slovenia, found in the Middle Paleolithic layers of the cave
and described by the finders as possibly the oldest musical instrument
in the world (Fink, 1996; Turk, 1997; Turk et al., 1995). It
has been demonstrated (d'Errico et al., 1998a,b) that holes
of the same size, shape, and number as those present on the Divje Babe
femur occur on cave bear limb bones from cave bear bone accumulations with
no human occupation, and that a number of features described as human-made
by the discoverers should more likely be interpreted as the result of carnivore
damage (Chase and Nowell, 1998).
"A further study (d'Errico, 1998b, 2000)
involved detailed analysis of the putative flute and of 77 other perforated
bones from different levels of Divje Babe and from four other Slovenian
cave bear sites. Among these sites, Krizna Jama is of particular interest
as it contains a natural cave bear bone assemblage with no traces of human
occupation. A number of variables were recorded. The flute and several
others bones were submitted to microscopic analysis. The new study confirms
the interpretation of the holes as the result of carnivore damage. In 70%
of the cases, the holes on perforated bones are associated with damage
characteristic of carnivore action, such as pitting and scoring, and in
20% of the cases, bones show counterbite marks in the form of opposing
perforations, or perforations opposite to impressions produced by tooth
pressure. Seventy-three percent of the perforated bones belong to young
bears, as is the case for the putative flute.
"Holes occur in almost all bones, but they are
particularly abundant on limb bones and among them, on femora, the bone
on which the purported flute was carved. The presence of two or possibly
three perforations on the suggested flute cannot therefore be considered
as evidence of human manufacture, as this is a common feature in the studied
sample. In the same way, the relatively large size of the holes does not
indicate anthropic carving. In fact, the maximum and minimum diameters
of the holes on the putative flute are close to the mean value of those
of the com-parative faunal sample. Moreover, the correlation between the
maximum and minimum diameter in this sample indicates a clear tendency
towards slightly elongated holes, the same pattern that we observe when
measuring the two complete holes of the suggested flute. In the Slovenian
sample, 28% of the holes occur in compact bone. The majority of these have
only one hole, but bones with two or more holes are also present.
"Another femur of a young cave bear from the
same site shows two holes very similar in size and shape to those on the
supposed flute, recorded on the same face and in the same anatomical position.
Nonetheless, this object could never have been 'playable,' as its epiphyses
were not completely opened. Microscopic analysis of the putative flute
itself confirms the natural origin of the holes. Many traces typical of
carnivore action, such as scoring and pitting, were found near the holes
and the ends of the bone (Fig. 9). Clear tooth impressions are also present
on the face opposite the holes. The distribution of different types of
carnivore damage on the bone surface is consistent with the interpretation
of the two holes as resulting from carnivore action. A large deep impression
found on the anterior face near the proximal end, indicating strong pressure
exerted by carnivore teeth, can reasonably be interpreted as the counterbite
of the anterior hole.
"The presence of pitting near the two holes suggests
that carnivore teeth touched this area repeatedly. The presence of scoring
and pitting at both ends, associated with other traces produced by carnivores,
confirms that the bone was heavily damaged by carnivores. In sum, all the
evidence suggests that the perforations on the so called Divje Babe "flute,"
like other damage on the same bone, were produced by nonhuman agents. The
most probable agent would appear to be the cave bears themselves; the frequency
distribution of the hole diameters recorded in the Slovenian sample is
very similar to that observed on sites where cave bear is the only species
represented, and we have tangible proof that a cave bear could produce
large holes in bones with its teeth.
"Of course, this does not mean that Neandertals
were unable to manufacture and play musical instruments. It simply means
that we cannot use this object to support that hypothesis and that a taphonomic
analysis of putative ancient musical instruments is an essential prerequisite
to any discussion of their significance for the origin of musical tradition
and the evolution of human cognitive abilities."
In a Nov., 2006 Oxford Journal of Archaeology article, Iain Morley (holding the carnivore-origin viewpoint)
wrote: "Whilst the collections of cave bear bones examined by d'Errico et al (1998), as well as those discussed
by Turk et al (2001), do show similar shaped and damaged holes...none of these occur in the diaphysis (thick
portion) of a femur" as is found on the reputed flute.
Writing also in 2006, Turk subjected the bone to multi-slice tomographic imaging. The results counter the
description by d'Errico, Nowell, et al, that the two end-holes were caused by carnivore damage. Turks wrote:
"The two partially preserved holes were formerly created before the damage...or before the indisputable
intervention of a carnivore...."
Turk wrote in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
book, The Origins of Music: "If this probability [of having
lined-up holes looking like a flute] were greater (and of course it isn't)
it is likely that there would have been more such finds, since...carnivores
in cave dens were at least as active on bones, if not moreso, than people
in cave dwellings...." pp. 235-268.
Resistance in some quarters to this object being declared a flute made
by Neanderthals, and thus also for it being the oldest known instrument
and the first instance known of a diatonic scale sequence, remains
firm. There are deeply held investments in the views held by different
camps in this debate regarding the capacities of Neanderthals (and by musicologists
regarding the "Westerness" of the diatonic scale). As M. Otte added:
"The destiny of the Mousterian flute discovered at Divje Babe was
pre-ordained: it could be only disputable and doubtful, a priori."
Philip Chase and April Nowell, although they oppose the
idea that the object is a flute, concluded (in Current Anthropology,
p.552 Vol. 39, #4, August - October, 1998):
"We agree with Turk...that it is logically not
possible to exclude either a human or a natural explanation for the specimen
from Divje Babe." They later wrote (in "The Divje Babe
specimen and the diatonic scale" in Studies in Music Archaeology
"At this point, it is in fact impossible to disprove
either hypothesis" [about whether it was a flute or not]. "Which
hypothesis one accepts, then, depends on one's assessment of their relative
In the light of results from the new tomography process, Turk wrote:
" ...the origin of the holes on the "flute" are no longer doubtful. We believe it is sufficiently clearly
shown that it is really an exceptional discovery, the oldest object which can be considered a flute, and
that sooner or later, the community of the paleolithicians will have to accept it. "
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Divje babe I Cave site in Slovenia), Znanstvenoraziskovalni Center
Sazu, Ljubljana, Slovenia. ISBN 9616182293.
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Vanhaeren, Anne-Marie Tillier, Marie Soressi, Frederique Bresson, Bruno
Maureille, April Nowell, Joseba Lakarra, Lucinda Backwell, and Michele
Julien (March 2003). Archaeological Evidence for the Emergence of Language,
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