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Updated Mar 2003-- Two New Books on Music Origins & Music Archaeology

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From: "Kent Nickerson"
14 Apr 1997, Forwarded to Bob Fink for reply
From the Globe and Mail, early April:
"A Neanderthal flute made from a bear's thigh bone (Science, Nov. 2) was used to play sweet music [your words, Bonnie, or some hack journalist's?], reports the Times of London. Canadian musicologist Bob Fink has studied the four inch artifact and concluded that it is based on the same seven-note scale used in modern western music. The flute, as it survives, could play four notes (Mi, Fa, Sol and Lah) in a minor key. In its original form, it would have been 15 inches long and capable of producing the entire scale."
Now I find this interesting, as it is considered in musicology that a pentatonic scale preceded the diatonic, yet the article above implies the latter! The Neanderthals were beyond rudimentary melodies, it seems!
-- Kent
To Kent Nickerson from Bob Fink
April 14, 1997
Dear Kent Nickerson:
I think the pentatonic would tend to precede the diatonic anywhere, anytime.
The 3rd and seventh notes introduce half-tones into the pentatonic scale, and unless you have tonality or a strong sense of key driving your melodies, you'd not take kindly to these additional notes. For a melody-lover, they serve as "leading tones" to the 4th note and the octave. These would only interest a melodically oriented musician. If you weren't so melodical, and still wanted to fill the two big tone-and-a-half gaps in the pentatonic, but also wanted to preserve an avoidance of the additions forming half-tones, then you would make the additions neither minor nor major but between them -- "neutral" tones, and the worst you have to put up with then is a 3/4-tone. The bone had a neutral third -- which could reflect this choice.
That is to say -- they already could have had a pentatonic that they were beginning to turn into a diatonic -- just as the Chinese independently did the same with their "pien" tones, and just as the ancient Scots and Irish did as well, occassionally adding the seventh and 3rd to their melodies, but not permanently into their scale.
There are several citations about this in the "Origin of Music" book I wrote in 1970. I didn't mean to imply the Neanderthals had no pentatonic "first." I have no idea -- but IF they had the diatonic, then I suspect it was preceded by a pentatonic (for which, of course, we have no evidence). UPDATE: Now we do: Click here.
--Bob Fink
May 5, 1997, Sent by: Michael McBroom,
to Bonnie Blackwell, forewarded to Bob Fink
Bonnie Blackwell wrote: "the notes are four notes in a harmonic minor scale, neutral mi, fa, so, minor la."
As a trained musician, I find the above statement confusing, and either incomplete or incorrect. It was not indicated which "sol-fa" system was being used. Is it the "movable-do system," in which the label for the tonic remains the same, regardless of pitch, or is it the absolute system, as used by the French and Italians, where each label corresponds to a specific note, the way C,D,E,F,G,A,B (or octaves thereof) do here?
Further, I'm not sure how to interpret a "neutral mi" or a "minor la." Perhaps "natural" was meant, instead of "neutral?" If so, this would suggest that the absolute system is being used, which would mean the notes would be E, F, G, and ??? Perhaps A-flat?
If it is correct that the four notes in question are E, F, G, and A-flat, then stating that they represents a harmonic minor scale is not entirely accurate. This scale fragment can be interpreted as being in the key of F minor, with a raised-7th, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd tones present. One of the distinguishing characteristics of a harmonic minor scale is the raised 7th tone, which this one has (the "mi" or E). But the most crucial distinction -- the one that gives the harmonic minor scale its exotic eastern quality -- is the 1.5-step interval between the 6th and 7th tones (minor 6th to major 7th intervals). This scale fragment lacks the 6th tone, so we cannot say with certainty that the 1.5-step interval was present. We can't even say with certainty that it is a minor scale. It could just as easily be an A-flat augmented 5th, or a B-flat diminished 5th scale fragment as well.
Michael McBroom,
California State University, Fullerton
Graduate Student, Linguistics Research Interest: Biological Origins of Language
Bob Fink to Michael McBroom: May 6, 1997
Dear M. McBroom:
The 4 notes on the bone flute correspond to the Flat Mi, Fa, Sol, and flat-La of a minor scale in the movable-Doh sytem. Without knowing the length of the original bone and playing it, no absolute pitch can be assumed.
The flat Mi is sharper than a perfect match. It is justified as a "match to notes in a diatonic minor scale" (ANY minor scale -- harmonic or melodic) on two grounds:
a) because of a similar known history of wide and varied tunings of the third scale note throughout much of the world, especially the western world, but also Africa, and
b) awareness of the accuracy of workmanship likely to expect from Neanderthals. This makes the match fit into a minor scale in a way that would still sound "ok" to an average ear -- plus or minus a quartertone for the 3rd -- especially when it is known that a "Blue" or "Neutral" third is often preferred in many cultures in their otherwise diatonic scales.
There's nothing about the harmonic minor in the essay. The only reason that arose and was re-mentioned by Bonnie was when I made a flute to match the bone's hole-spacings. I could have fit it into ANY minor scale, but since the other holes were already drilled when I bought the commercial flute, I only covered over and redrilled the 4 that were relevant to the bone. That made the altered flute into a flute with a harmonic minor scale -- only in this instance. As neither the Re nor the Ti exist on this bone (if the 4 are identified correctly), then we don't know whether they would've been there at all (or b flat, or b natural).
There was a second match named in the essay, in which the 4 holes are identified as Do, Re, Mi and Fa, on a closed-end flute. This would have made a match in which we might assume a slightly flat Re (as in a descending scale using the Re as a descending "leading-tone"). The chances of a fair to good match such as these two were worked out in the appendix of the essay as being one in hundreds to have occured by chance. So we allowed ourselves the assumptions they WERE aiming at a scale, and the notes were close enough to assume a match in both instances (based on a possible preference on the part of the Neanderthals for a blue note or downward leading-tone, and/or based on the average untrained ear).
We don't claim to have proved anything: Just to have come up with a decent likliehood.
-- Bob Fink.
Michael McBroom to Bob Fink: May 7, 1997
Thanks very much for the clarification. This makes much more sense.
Subject: Re: Origins (of Music) Conference (Florence, Italy):
Date: Tue, 17 Jun 1997
From: (Sandra Trehub)
[Sandra Trehub is one of the authors of a noted study on musically untutored babies, showing that they prefer harmony to dissonance.]
To: Bob Fink
I just returned from Italy, having taken the opportunity to visit friends once I was overseas. The Florence meetings were very interesting but barely scratched the surface of music (unless bird "song" and whale "song" are accorded musical status, as many conference attendees were ready to do).
The meetings focused largely on the evolution of communication in general, with relatively little attention accorded to human language and music. Apparently, music will be at centre stage in subsequent meetings that are planned.
I downloaded your fascinating article on the bone flute some time ago (from the Internet) and mentioned it in my presentation (even had transparencies of your illustrations). I also mentioned (and played a sample of) the Kilmer, Crocker, & Brown song. Later, Bruno Nettl told me that ethnomusicologists reject the Kilmer et al. interpretation but I never learned why. Unfortunately, the meeting was dense with presentations and very light on discussion time, impeding the exchange of information across disciplines.
-- Sandra________________________
University of Toronto, Erindale Campus Mississauga,
Ontario, CANADA L5L 1C6 TEL:(905) 828-5415 FAX:(905) 569-4326
To: Sandra Trehub <>
From Bob Fink
June 17 1997
Dear Sandra:
Thank you for your e-mail.
The reasons why ethnomusicologists are dismissive of Kilmer's results (tho' not all are, I'm sure) is because they are motivated by a laudable, but over-zealous, desire to avoid ethnocentrism. That is, they are always suspicious of any conclusions that tout the diatonic scale (or even the pentatonic) as having any "natural" foundation because:
a) They believe it may be a subjective attempt to justify "western" musical superiority by saying western music's scale foundations are the best, most "advanced" musical system (which is anathema to them as they hold each musical system must be judged exclusively from the internal standards of any culture, tribe, group, people or locale, and because they hate the term "primitive" and downplay almost any evolutionary stages to music), and
b) they are not very inter-disiplinary: They (generally) know very little about the physics of sound (Helmholtz and acoustics), physiology, biology, anthropology, and evolution. They tend to support cultural and psychological relativism and conditioning as fundamental processes of human behavior (and most human behavior is conditioned, but not all.)
In my opinion, both Kilmer's findings and the evidence that the Neanderthal flute may be diatonic is ALSO evidence that so-called "western" musical foundations are decidedly NOT western after all! So much for ethnocentricism.
And secondly, I cannot accept that the scale's historic development with its immense number of parallels to acoustics and mounting evidence in other disciplines (such as yours) is all coincidence.
In Kilmer's case, (as I understand it) the match-up of the number of syllables with the number of notes carved into the clay tablets (a match-up which resulted once they assumed a harmonic structure existed in the song) was too hard to accept as coincidence -- especially when it also led to finding the harmonies were mostly thirds [like ancient English gymel and various African music samples found in Nettl's own work "Music in Primitive Cultures"] -- and led ALSO to the diatonic scale. How much "coincidence" are we supposed to ignore??
The only other explanation is that Kilmer consciously engineered her data with Crockett in order to produce pre-biased conclusions -- which, knowing Kilmer, is totally impossible to believe.
To me, ethnomusicologist's rejections are a die-hard phenomena. You can also check out the net again: under the part called "An Evolutionary Process in Progress."
Like you, I think I find question and discussion often more interesting and enlightening than an overload of presentations. Thanks very much for writing. --Bob Fink
25 Jun 1997
From: Dr. T. Temple Tuttle
To: greenwich
I have recently been forwarded your article on a Neanderthal flute, and wondered if you are for real, or a delayed April Fool's Day joke. There are so many ethnocentric and acoustical errors, I thought it must be the latter.
Why do you presuppose a seven-note system? Why do you construct your scales ascending? Why do you consider hole size but not their lateral placement? Other than the Hebrew gymel (vocal), what evidence do you have for instrumental harmony in early cultures? Why do you indicate that the major scale is generally the preferred mode, when even today it is not, internationally? Why do you consider the comma a measure of error, when it is part of some extant tuning systems (see India's 22-srutis)? When figuring pitches by ratios, how can you deal with the missing portions of your specimen?
If a joke, then "HA-HA!". If serious, let's tawk! [My current research deals with misinformation regarding the pitches and functions of 16th century lithophones in south India.] Best wishes, and no offense intended,
--Tom Tuttle
Music Department College of Arts and Sciences
Cleveland State University
Jun 25 1997
From Bob Fink
To: "Dr. T. Temple Tuttle"
Dear Tom Tuttle:
You wrote: "Why do you presuppose a seven-note system."
The issue of the essay was whether the notes playable by the bone artifact would match any of the notes in the (widespread) scales we know of:
a) the whole-tone pentatonic,
b) the diatonic or
c) the equal-spaced scales that would be arrived at by spacing holes equally to suit finger widths.
Since the holes were unequally spaced, c) was ruled out.
The Pentatonic was ruled out because of the half-tone spacing.
The holes were spaced so that given the full length of the bone (attested by paleontologists), the notes would play 4 notes matching a portion of the scale we know as diatonic. This DOESN'T PROVE they had the whole scale nor that they intended to produce any part of such a scale. But the odds (worked out in the essay's appendix) are FAR LIKELIER THAN NOT, that it wasn't a chance arrangement nor intended to match some hitherto unknown or unusual scale.
You wrote: "Why do you construct your scales ascending?"
I construct only one scale (not scales), the standard modern diatonic, in order to have a mathematical model of the scale to which I compare the bone. There is nothing assumed about acending. I could have as easily written out the scale and the charts from right to left (mirror image) and the conclusions would remain unaltered.
However, in the match #1, the somwhat off-tuned "do" (I have to call it something) indicates the next note (re) could have been a flattened 2nd (as is found commonly in various cultures) due to a descending or downward "leading note." Therefore, I have not assumed anything about ascending nor descending, nor is it relevant to my asking if the notes could match our modern acoustic (non-tempered) diatonic.
You wrote "Why do you consider hole size but not their lateral placement?"
The holes are in line -- there is little lateral displacement. Nor are hole sizes given much consideration either. I have no idea what your point is nor why you ask this question.
You wrote: "Other than the Hebrew gymel (vocal), what evidence do you have for instrumental harmony in early cultures?"
There is nothing in the essay that I recall that refers to the existence of harmony in Neanderthal cultures nor in connection to this bone flute. However, aside from the bone itself, there is evidence of early harmony other than gymel. See:
You wrote: "Why do you indicate that the major scale is generally the preferred mode, when even today it is not, internationally?"
Statistically, by quantitatively considering ALL the music in the world played today (including popular music, rock & roll, etc. INCLUDING when it is played widely in counties other than its origin (e.g., sales of cassettes and records and 45 rpms in China, Africa, the Near East and etc.), I think it's pretty obvious that the major scale predominates over the minor far more today than it probably did in history, when perhaps (I haven't tried to study this quantitatively) the minor scale predominated.
However, if you say that the minor scale is "preferred" more than major, than that, if true, actually SUPPORTS my argument regarding match #2 being 4 notes that could fit into a minor scale (IF the Neanderthals had the whole scale, which cannot be known, except that there IS a good probability for it).
You wrote: "Why do you consider the comma a measure of error...?"
In the essay's appendix, a margin of error had to be given in order to work out the odds for the hole spacings on the bone to have occured by chance. If we assumed that a hole couldn't be off by any amount of error at all, that would impute to Neanderthals a state of workmanship equal to or greater than the 1/10,000 of an inch found in modern computerized machine shops. That would be absurd.
If we assumed a too large amount of error, than one could legitimately ask whether the hole would have been a non-match (out of tune) well within or long before this large of a distance error was reached.
Therefore, consulting with ear-testers, acoustic psychologists and other texts, we decided that the present-day common biological "average" for what an untrained (common) ear would notice was "out of tune" (from whatever note was intended) would be a pythagorean comma -- and even in this regard, "out of tune" historically (for the diatonic scale) has had different tolerances, depending upon what area of the scale was involved:
Namely, the third and seventh notes can be further out of tune than other notes in the scale before objections to the tuning occurred.
This would make an excellent subject for further direct physiological testing among people who are accustomed to the diatonic scale.
However -- all that aside -- we felt safe with an error in the neighborhood of a comma.
You wrote: "When figuring pitches by ratios, how can you deal with the missing portions of your specimen?"
I have no idea what this question means. What do you specifically mean by "missing portions?" Notes? Bone length? Or?
---Bob Fink See also:
From: "Dr. T. Temple Tuttle"
To: greenwich
Wed, 25 Jun 1997
Dear Bob:
I questioned a seven-note system, since much of early chant (and some present chant) involves only three or four notes...even when a full seven- or eight-note repertoire of notes is available. [Somehow, I would expect Neanderthal music to be nearer to chant than Schubert.]
From other examples, I tend to associate equally-spaced holes to suit finger widths with rhythmically-oriented flute playing.
The Pentatonic is not a single scale, but may be anhemitonic (but based on diatonic), or equitonic (where the scale is divided into five approximately equal portions). A hemitonic-pentatonic scale cannot be ruled out without additional holes being present.
So I not only agree with the majority of your scalar conclusions, I certainly embrace your statement that it wasn't a chance arrangement.
Is a four-tone scale, not including an octave of the fundamental (tonic) note, a "hitherto unknown or unusual scale"? Perhaps not then, as now with Vedic chant in India.
Your term "match" is appropriate, I believe, for one would expect a musical practice to become normative vocally first, then matched on an instrument.
I wrote: "Why do you construct your scales ascending?" to remind you that the Greek modes, for example, were conceived descending. One can construct a model based upon the highest note. (In the Greek example, the added "low" note [proslambanomenos] was held highest on the kithara. Several Eastern instruments, particularly pitched ideophones, are held with the highest pitch physically the lowest.)
I guess I have gotten over-sensitive about musicologists who do not know or present the debt of Western Art Music, to African and Mideastern precedents.
In the match #1, IF we presume "the somewhat off-tuned "do"" is indeed "in tune", the next note (re) is a flattened 2nd which is found commonly in various cultures, AS AN AESTHETIC CHOICE, NOT due to a descending or downward "leading note." [The raga determined to be the best to teach children and older beginners is Mayamalavagoula, consisting of T, 1/2,1-1/2, 1/2, 1, 1/2, 1-1/2, 1/2. This is the same is ascent and descent.]
Hole size is important, but lateral displacement is required to prevent nodes from occuring in the area removed for a hole. The holes being in line -- with little lateral displacement is to be expected.
I do say that the minor scale is "preferred" more than major, particularly in historical perspective. Yes, I actually SUPPORT your argument regarding match #2 being 4 notes that could fit into a minor scale. [Or could constitute a 4-tone scale for chant!.] The comma as a measure of error is rather common. But it has also been used in a positive way for constructing scale systems in the East. I prefer to use a non-aesthetic term, such as Hz., for scientific speculation about sound, since it avoids ethnocentrism and the "basic truths" of Western Arts Music.
In more realistic terms for the caveman: What sounds OK by accepted norms? The present-day common biological "average" for what an untrained (common) ear would notice was "out of tune" (from whatever note was intended) may be more or less acute than that of the caveman. (I wonder how much damage these young people do to their hearing in Rock Wheels? Once I wandered too close to a speaker tower, sitting in on a Chicago performance at Atlantic City, and I lost hearing in my right ear for over two days!)
I would accept the Pythagorean comma as a measure of being "out of tune". However, I have found that one may train their ear to an acuity which surpasses that standard. The 22-sruti system of South India requires accuracy to < +/- 1/2 comma.(Furthermore, I have been working with a recording engineer on my lithophone project, aiming at 1/3 Hz as a tolerance.)
You were safe with an error in the neighborhood of a comma.
I specifically meant bone length (=flute length). But not to flog a tired dog, so thanks for the chat. I would love to see the artifact in person. And any time you run across anything about lithophones (or phonoliths), do not hesitate to run to your keyboard! Best personal regards
-- Tom Tuttle
Jun 25 1997
From: Bob Fink
Dear Tom:
You'll have to go to Slovenia, I'm afraid, to see the original bone.
I do agree the youth are destroying their hearing.
A copy of my book on the origin of music might be in the Cleveland public library (as "The Universality of Music" or "The Origin of Music"). In that book I have large tracts devoted to Greek music, modes, descending scales, et al. There may be copies as well (if not in Cleveland) at Columbus Publ Lib., Ohio State Univ. Lib., and U. of Cinncinati -- in case you really want to look it up.
Rest assured I am among those who believe that cultural conditioning represents the fundamental means of human learning. We are virtually clean slate-boards when we are born and society writes us as it will.
But, that said, there still is a small base of natural influences upon our senses, including hearing, which I believe affect the development of the arts to greater or lesser degrees.
We are looking at Neanderthal ears -- which likely were like ours -- but we may never know. And we are looking at 43,ooo years ago -- that may as well be another planet!!
So the conclusions I've drawn are really based more on other issues than just on this bone, regarding any natural basis to the diatonic scale. Unless this bone flute is meant to reflect some unknown prehistoric pentatonic with semitones in it, then I tend to believe it may be evidence of natural acoustic influences pushing for the diatonic. But this bone is not proof -- just a probability of a reasonable magnitude. We could only know for sure if they ever find the rest of that flute -- or an intact one somewhere else. ---Bob
Jul 08 1997
From: langley <>
To: greenwich
Dear Bob Fink,
I have just read through your entries re: origins of music and ancient flutes, etc. There is so much I want to ask you and, I hope, contribute to your symposium.
But first may I ask: are you aware of the 'feline carved from reindeer horn' on page 7 of the 1962 edition of the Larousse Encyclopaedia of Prehistoric and Ancient Art? It is supposed to be from the Franco-Cantabrian Palaeolithic age, and the 5 visible holes in it are claimed to be symbolic spear and arrow holes. As a wind-instrument maker, it is obvious to me that this is a wind instrument, probably a vessel-flute.
I am in fact a maker of pottery ocarinas. An academic friend of mine researched ancient ocarinas in South America and found many unattributed vessel-flutes in museums. Ignorance of the musical nature of some ancient objects is widespread.
Now one reason I am contacting you is to ask if you have considered whether your flute fragment might have been end-stopped - i.e. a vessel-flute. If it was, then the pitch-changes produced by the holes will be completely different from those of a straight open-ended flute or whistle. If you have considered the possibility and rejected it, fine.
But if I can help at all concerning the extraordinarily complex science of hole-size, hole-position and interior form of vessel as these variables relate to pitch, then please let me know. I have conducted many experiments over the past 20 years, and know how little I know. But what little I know is at your service.
May I say how thrilling it is to find someone looking seriously at the origins of music? It's almost as if there has been some sort of taboo on the subject.
Yours melodically, -- John Langley.
Jul 08 1997
From: Bob Fink
Dear John:
I haven't heard of nor seen the horn you write about. I would love to see a picture of it, even measurements as well, if they are available. My fax # is 306-244 0795. I doubt if the Larousse book you mention is in our library. But I'll check. (I own only the Larousse Int'l Illus. Dictionary.)
What is "obvious" to us (I am frequently reminded) must be carefully examined for bias. Even whether this ancient bone is a flute has been denied. To me, it's obviously a flute. But I've been forced to defend the obvious as if it wasn't obvious. Perhaps the horn could be denied as a flute as well, unless we can defend the obvious there as well.
As far as the open-closed ends issue goes, Match #2 in the essay assumes an open-ended flute. Match # 1 in the essay considers that it could have been a closed flute.
The normal length of a femur is quite long. So we felt it was reasonable to assume that it was not part of a short ocarina type instrument. However, it COULD have been. We'll never know unless they find the rest of the object.
Where I deal with issues of "could have been" is where I tried my best to obtain reasonably accurate probabilities for certain statements in this essay.
What I have held as conclusive in the essay is that the holes are consistent with those of a diatonic scale scale (IF the flute is long enough).
What I held as probable is that the hole spacing reflects not so much an ocarina or 4 or 5 note scale with a half-tone (or other pitch if it was a short flute), but a larger scale, likely parallel to the diatonic scale. I can't conclude this, but hold it probable for reasons examined in some of the correspondence (note: there are 3 web pages of it) and especially in
There I pointed to the widespread cross-cultural fact of pentatonic and 7-note diatonic scales in our own history (and the acoustic basis for these scales) as justification for the probabilities being higher regarding the Neanderthal bone matching a diatonic rather than matching a more obscure or hitherto unknown scale.
I held match #2 as probable (open-end minor scale) over match #1 (major, closed end), because removing marrow is easier when the ends are broken off (rather than drilling holes when marrow is still in the bone, and sucking it out). And also because the dimensions of the fit are closer to an acoustic scale than the dimensions of match #1.
In the intro/summary of the essay, I had to make decisions about all the other pitch-related factors you mentioned ["the extraordinarily complex science of hole-size, hole-position and interior form of vessel"] and as you read, I felt they were real factors, but possibly cancelling each other out and likely not significant enough to cancel our conclusion of a pitch-match to the diatonic (again PROVIDED the bone was from 32-38cm long).
Besides, how on earth could one measure these effects without the entire bone? Having said that, I and my partner, Mike Finley, nevertheless would be interested in receiving copies of the work and experiments you've done (or a summary of it) on these matters as we certainly have developed a need to understand this ever since we embarked on this essay.
Someday, I expect a replica will be made of the old bone (43,400 yrs old, current estimate). At various lengths, it will be blown, and we'll see what the pitches really are. The best I could do was to simply work with the hole spacings translated onto a straight irish flute (tin whistle) barrel.
And you're right: It IS "as if there has been some sort of taboo on the subject." I think there actually has been -- especially by those ethnomusicologists who are most prone to downplaying that music has undergone "evolution." They dislike that idea as it leads to what they fear most: That non-literate societies' music will be also be branded "primitive" or judged "inferior" against some evolutionary time-line of progressive change toward "final perfection." They prefer -- sometimes fanatically -- to "judge" a people's music only (or mostly) on its own culturally-internal terms, and avoid comparisons to any other cultures' music, especially to "western" musical scales. I try to point out that this Neanderthal find makes the diatonic (if that's what the Neanderthals had) NON-WESTERN!! But to little avail.
Anyway, the word "origin" implies an evolution and comparisons that they'd rather resist; And they also add: "why bother with origins? It's all speculative and we weren't there, and can never really know anyway." Of course, I've never agreed with all of that. --Bob Fink
JUNE 19, 1998
It isn't true that I'm "out to prove" a particular case. The real characterization is this: I have discovered very satisfactory answers to questions that first plagued me as a youngster first studying music. Namely:
* Why wasn't the 7-note scale I had to practice (in all keys) simply divided equally (in terms of frequencies) like ALMOST everything else designed by humanity (equal spacings of streets, blocks, sidewalk tiles, telephone poles; windows in buildings, inches, feet, yards, hours, minutes, meters, meters, millimeters, scales of temperature and weight -- ad infinitum? Why was the musical scale so different?
* Answers I received raised other issues: I was told the octave did get divided by equidistant halftones. But why 12, instead of the usual 5 or l0 as in our thousands-year-old number system? And why 7 notes in the diatonic instead of five or ten? And why wasn't the pentatonic 5-note scale also equally divided, instead of having the two large tone-and-half gaps where the 3rd and 7ths could fit?
* Being told as a kid the piano simply was made out of the "older" pentatonic (black notes) mixed with the 7-note white diatonic scale seemed at first to have some sense, but I learned that scheme was an Aesop-like fable, it wasn't really the motivation for that arrangement anyway, and later made no sense, when temperament was considered.
Looking into the world of music and musicology failed to provide any answers that didn't raise more questions. I finally sought answers outside music, namely in physics, acoustics, history, cultural conditioning (psychology), physiology & biology (of the ear); esthetics, and anthropology. It was then that I began to discover (NOT set out fixedly to "prove") that the world of musicology seemed largely divorced from other disciplines, and in fact, the answers I gleaned from the outside disciplines reinforced each other regarding acoustics and evolutionary cultural processes -- while at the same time these disciplines made musicology and ethnomusicology look like some kind of archaic alchemist's anachronism rather than a science or "ology" or a real search for truth.
Indeed, the resistance I found among musicologists revealed it was not facts, but biased politics, designed to defend the world of 20th century "serious" music composing at all costs, that motivated musicology to a degree that was alarming to me.
Let's look at the answers I found specifically, and the issues posed to me: To wit:
Why is Kilmer's analysis of the oldest song as diatonic and harmonic (thirds) not "convincing"?
In my reading of Kilmer's analysis of the Hurrian song, her diatonic assumptions made consistent sense with all the rest of the data. Sometimes I think that many musicologists fail to appreciate what the scientific method is all about.
My view of this is best explained by analogy to astronomy: Please read this -- it is not going to be obscure or difficult.
When planet Uranus's orbit was noticed to be wobbly and doing "bumps and grinds" -- these were inexplicable until an assumption was made that another planet must exist nearby that gravitationally caused Uranus to be pulled slightly out of orbit. Based on the changes exhibited by Uranus's orbit, the wobble, etc., this imaginary undiscovered planet's mass, nearness, speed in orbit, approximate location and perhaps other characteristics, was able to be calculated.
In other words, the planet Neptune was "theoretically discovered" by deduction, although not by actual sighting of it. No one could think of any other reason for Uranus' strange orbital behavior, but despite that, of course, the assumption could still have been wrong. That's why I say it was "theoretically" discovered. All they had was a mental "model" (not a real planet yet) but it explained all the known facts and orbital deviations. If the planet Neptune had never been sighted, it would still be reasonable to now posit that it existed.
Without the above calculations that helped indicate where to look for it in the sky, discovering it in the night sky by chance observations would have been like finding a lost penny in the ocean.
The assumptions led the way to finally finding it in reality. This is part of the scientific method -- namely, if an assumption leads to an explanation or model of all the facts, including facts hitherto inexplicable, then "circularly" speaking, the assumption has legitimately gained evidence for its now being considered true or at least "convincing" (to all but those with some other reason for resisting that conviction) and the assumption would ordinarily be accepted as likely.
What Kilmer appeared to me to do was virtually the same. She make some assumptions or deductions that notes were paired in harmonies. When she did this, she ended up discovering that the result produced thirds (mostly) and that the number of syllables of the words to the song ended up nicely matching the number of notes (or thirds) used. [Hopefully I haven't misinterpreted or over-simplified her work.]
In any event, the chances of finding such a match of notes with syllables (without it reflecting the reality of ancient musical intentions) are staggeringly small.
Now here's a choice: If we have an assumption that, when pursued, gives us a song where note numbers match syllables and the harmonies are thirds (like English "gymel") and to top it all off -- all in the diatonic mode -- do we say it's all an immense coincidence? Or do we say that the assumption explains virtually all the facts, and therefore, is likely true? In my book, that's "convincing." Unless one has some other facts or reasons to cite, to deny that the diatonic mode existed that long ago.
Unfortunately, unlike the astronomy business, in the Neanderthal flute business, the rest of the flute hasn't been found. But we have a piece of it, and it explains many other facts and it matches work in other disciplines (Trehub, Kilmer, acoustics, history, etc.)
Unlike a "theoretical" conclusion about diatonic evolution, this bone fragment now offers, if not proof, then a physical non-theoretical evidence of great significance to the case already made elsewhere.
Couple the above with the world of acoustics, in which the historic progress of the diatonic scale mirrors numerous laws of acoustics -- so numerous as to be a staggering miracle of coincidence if one insists that the effect of acoustics on the human ear had little or nothing to do with it.
Below are the parallels between the scale and acoustics -- accomplished by musicians who knew nothing about the match to acoustic laws they made through history. Just look at these!
* If you write out the overtones of these three notes (Tonic, 4th & 5th) and string out the most audible ones, you will get the major scale (with a few weak overtones left over).
Example in C (listing the different overtones in the series in order of loudness as overtones):
..........Tonic C --- Overtones are: C, G, E, Bb
..........Fifth G ---- Overtones are: G, D, B, F
..........Fourth F -- Overtones are: F, C, A, Eb
* If you substitute the three weakest ones (the 3rd, 6th and 7th notes of the scale) with another three notes (which includes these even weaker next overtones), and which are flatter, you get the minor scale. (The 6th note is strongest of the three because it forms no semitones with adjacent notes in the scale.).
* If you leave these two -- the 3rd and 7th notes -- out altogether, you get what's commonly called the "Chinese" scale -- or the piano's 'black notes' pentatonic 5-note scale -- found also in Africa, old Scottish and Irish folk music, and elsewhere (and here we often find 3rds and sevenths as "pien" or "passing over" tones [Orient] or other fill-in, "becoming" or "leading" tones [Scottish] in their pentatonic scales).
* Because these overtones are very weak, they were the last to come into the scale historically, and how to tune them was a matter of historic uncertainty -- and many people often tuned them somewhere between minor and major (in the 'cracks' on the piano), producing what are known as "blue" or neutral notes.
* The most audible overtones of a note all have simple ratios, like 2:1 (octave), or 2:3 (fifth note of scale), or 3:4 (4th note of the scale). In fact these three notes are present in virtually every musical scale known on earth. We must conclude a relationship exists between low ratios and what has been considered as worthy of being included in scales.
* The overtones of any one note all add up to its major chord, when played out loud rather than as overtones.
* Finally, in harmony, chords historically came to accompany notes in the melody (witness most folk songs from all lands) based on the tonic fourth or fifth, depending which of these originally gave rise (by its overtones) to that note in the scale: Thus, you harmonize tonic (say C), with c major, D with G major, E with C major, F with F major, G with G major, A with F major, B with G major and C again with C major. (Try it on the piano with any known folk melody.)
This is the fundamental schemata for the harmonization of almost all popular and folk music.
Chords were evolved in early medieval periods following the advent of drone counterpoint, which created a host of accidental harmonies (and dissonances-in-passing) of all sorts, a very serendipity-like process. Eventually, with time, the most desired chords chosen or which emerged most-used from this process (without musicians having awareness of the parallels they were making to acoustics -- an unknown science at that time) ended up being the chords of the tonic, dominant (5th) and subdominant (4th) (with variations for the minor key).
Dissonant chords were deliberately added as a contrast to help the consonances more powerfully stand out, mirroring a process found all through nature and other arts and disciplines: An esthetic based on the interplay of polar opposites (very Hegelian/Marxist by the way) namely: consonance/dissonance; male/female; up/down; left/right; loud/soft; bright/dim; sweet/sour; high/low; major/minor; plus/minus; sharp/dull; old/young; beginning/end; negative/positive; fast/slow; -- the list is virtually endless.
Basically, however, we are more discussing scale-evolution, rather than music made with the use of scales. (The distinction is clearer when one sees that the "scale of primary colours" on the spectrum or colour-wheel or palette is not the same as a painting made using the palette.)
Clearly, a "natural" scale is not used without contrasts to it, or wirthout effects of culture, conditioning, and esthetic habits -- all of which will modify its use in music-making. It's naturalness is only what explains its historic evolution and ability to spread across cultures through time.
Regarding the common use of dissonance in theatre and movies to express a variety of emotions (terror, suspense, sinister tension, etc., -- by the way, usually all emotions of discontent or emotional "discord") -- this is not nearly as acceptable when removed from the meaning of the drama. Indeed, a lot of it could be considered as being more "sound effects" than music -- like crash, explosion or breaking glass sounds -- which, acceptable to the public in context, are almost universally dismissed as being "music" for listening (by the same public) when the sounds are asked to be enjoyed outside of the literary context.
If none of this argumentation is "convincing," then how does one explain :
* So much coincidence (acoustics, et al); and /or
* Corroborating findings from so many different disciplines; or
* That something which explains virtually all known facts is still subject to being dismissed -- when in any other scientific pursuit (for example, physics or biology), any theoretical model which can explain all or most of the facts is routinely accepted as state-of-the-art knowledge?
What historic or present facts can be cited that my model fails to explain?
--Bob Fink
Aug 22-23, 1999
To greenwich
I just finished your article on the applicability of the found bone to the musical scale. As a non-musician layman, I found it all a little too complex for easy understanding. However, your overlay of the bone to an actual flute was pretty convincing.
My question: are you suggesting that Neanderthals had full flutes, or just a 4-[note] musical scale? It looks to me as if the bone is flared at both ends -- wouldn't this make it difficult to add more notes to the scale? What do you think such a flute would sound like? I'm very curious as to how such an instrument would actually sound... any guidance?
-- John Harlow Byrne
Dear John:
The paleontologists at various museums have indicated that a juvenile femur could have been long enough to accommodate a full scale. Was this particular bone long enough? I have seen an unbroken bone which similarly appears to flare, but then the flare straightens out a few inches later (or visually disappears when the bone is rotated a bit), and goes on to be longer than one would have thought if our only visual information was if it had been broken at the flare.
I'm not at all suggesting this is the case, only that it is possible according to some experts. However, the Neanderthal bone also could likely have been a 4 or 5-note flute, and shorter, as the flare indicates to many people. This is the position regarding length taken by Turk, the finder of the bone.
In either case, the pattern of holes is "diatonic" or matches a do, re, mi set of pitch distances between holes -- which is the basic limit of conclusive viewpoint in my essay.
To make these holes play in tune would require the additional assumption of a mouthpiece extension making the entire bone flute long enough. As the bone is broken, there is no proof of an extension other than the statistical improbability that, by chance, the holes were distanced like that -- yet NOT meant to produce the diatonic pitches. These spacings are like a tell-tale "fingerprint" as they are not equally spaced note-holes. So I make the assumption of a mouthpiece extension on grounds of a greater likelihood of that being the case, i.e., to avoid accepting the spacings as pure chance. We likely will never know for sure.
I don't recall ever consciously hearing a bone flute, but I'm told the sound would be similar to a wood, metal, or bamboo flute, or other bone-type flutes. Of course, some discerning ears may be able to tell blindfolded the difference. My main concern has been the issue of relative note-pitches.
Bob Fink
To greenwich (in part):
Well, I'm a fan of the 'try it out' school of archaeology, followed by White and O'Neil. That is, if you think a cave bear bone would work, why not get hold of a Kodiak bear femur of around the same size, and make one? Then, you could find out by trial and error whether there was such a mouth extension, whether the holes were put there for hand comfort or musical tone, and so forth. It would also lend a LOT of weight to your arguments, as people (such as myself) tend to put a lot of unconscious weight of belief in what they can see and touch, as opposed to what they merely read about. Prove to the world that the cave bear flute works.
John Harlow Byrne
Dear John:
That proof has been provided by Ivan Turk. My work is on the Internet, but unfortunately, Ivan Turk has not put his work fully on the net. But his now-published monograph on the bone includes the making of a similar bone flute (without an extension) and a simple slit for a mouthpiece. They were able to prove that it could produce musical tones with simply blowing through it.
You wrote: "Aren't we making an assumption that the holes should be in tune? After all, presumably this flute was made a long time ago, perhaps by a different species... why should they have the same ideas of what sounds are in good tune?"
I do make that assumption. Here's why:
Turk's people added no extension to the flute. As a result, it didn't play do, re mi, etc., but a more chromatic series of notes, matching no widely found scale known. Therefore, if we assume NO extension, then the spacings of the holes being a match to the distinctive spacings of a do, re, mi series of tones has to be considered a coincidence of vast proportions (about 1 in 600 according to the Appendix in my essay).
It's important to note that the unequal spacings of any four consecutive holes on a diatonic flute are like a tell-tale fingerprint, and would not be produced that particular way for any other reason known.
Coincidence is something I would rather not assume nor accept. It appears far likelier to me to reject "chance" as an explanation, and yes, to assume instead, as you say I do, that they were meant to be "in tune," which then requires the assumption of an extension -- but no longer requires believing in coincidence regarding the spacings.
You wrote: "Here's another question... I know that the flute has been dated at 40-63 kya... why the huge span of years? Those are a pretty important span of years, after all... and 5,000 years in one direction or another might be the crucial difference in determining whether this flute was a Neandertal creation, or a trade item from Homo Sapiens populations."
Turk's monograph and the work of Prof. Bonnie Blackwell went into this as well. As I are not an archaeologist, but merely are a musicologist, I suggest you refer that question to Blackwell, as well as the matter of whether a form of glue would have been likely:
You wrote: "Perhaps this bone flute had no such extension... then wouldn't it sound like an ocarina (more like a whistle than a flute)? Looking at it in a practical standpoint, you're suggesting a 10" flute... but here's the rub: Neandertal typically moved around a LOT, requiring that all his implements be rugged, and able to withstand the rigors of travel (notable exceptions being the Shanidar inhabitants?). A 10" flute, particularly one built in two pieces, would be fragile. Further, unless our maker had figured out how to boil down hooves for glue, how is he going to attach the pieces together?"
I think Blackwell told me that forms of effective "glue" were simple enough to have been discovered by the most rudimentary peoples. But on these matters, I am no expert. I do know that I have been able to jam two cylindrical items into each other (like drinking tumblers) and even despite no glue being used, I was never, ever able to get them apart again!!
In the case of 2 bones, even clay could be sufficient to fill any air gaps to make the thing playable. [It also makes the bone flute more transportable (in two pieces) like an Al Capone machine gun], requiring only more clay at the next "jam" session. It also means that the mouthpiece is a smaller more convenient diameter for fitting the mouth than the cumbersome bone without an extension mouthpiece.
You can reach Prof. Bonnie Blackwell now at:
Best wishes, Bob Fink

Click here for continuation of general correspondence. The Correspondence below only relates to:
* Whether the bone is a flute or made by chance effects
* The recent find of 9,ooo year old flutes including a fully-playable one.

(My reply follows the article)
(Science News, Vol. 153, April 4, 98, p.215)
By B. Bower
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 years 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.
Bob Fink
Update: Jan 2004 -- Lacking clear taphonomic evidence,
how could we tell artifact from accident?
Also see a recent article by Marcel Otte: CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY Volume 41, Number 2, April 2000:
Note: Begining September 5, 2000, access to the full text of that journal will be available only to institutional and individual subscribers. However, the salient portions of the article are quoted below.
[Otte is director of the museum of Préhistoire, Université de Liège, 7, place du XX Août, Bât.A1, 4000 Liège, Belgium. 27 IV 99, and he now discounts the view that the bone is a natural product.]
Otte writes in part:
"Chase and Nowell's...rejection of the interpretation of a Mousterian flute discovered in Slovenia raises serious questions about which CURRENT ANTHROPOLOGY readers should be informed.
"The opportunity for close examination of the original instrument, knowledge of the sedimentary context of the discovery, and the results of numerous comparative experiments and studies were recently made available to a group of scientists by the discoverers in Slovenia. At this meeting I became convinced of the opposite of the opinion expressed by Chase (who was also present)....
"Finally, the instrument consists of not two perforations (as Chase and Nowell indicate) but five ("like five fingers of a hand"): four on one side, one on the opposite side. ...If there was gnawing by carrion eaters (which seems to be the case for this bone as for most of the others of this level), it was concentrated at the ends of the bone and, in any case, superimposed on traces of human activity. The fifth hole appears at the base of the opposite side, at the natural location of the thumb.
"....The capacity for symbolization is everywhere present in the Middle Paleolithic and sufficient to make the presence and use of musical instruments in this period at least a logical possibility (Otte 1996). The problem, then, lies in the usual double problematic of archeological nearsightedness and of the more current taphonomy.....
"We must beware of received ideas: they inflict lasting damage on both scientific thought and scientific literature, especially in the human sciences. The idea of Mousterian ineptitude is one of the deepest and one of the most perverse because it reassures us about ourselves. The destiny of the Mousterian flute discovered at Divje Babe was preordained: it could be only disputable and doubtful, a priori. We have seen how disastrous the application of "apriorisms" in the human sciences has been for recent European history."
From a letter I wrote to a correspondent April 26, 1998:
As to the Science News write-up, Nowell and Chase suggest a wolf as a possible carniviore making the holes. If you have a copy of Turk's monograph, it shows, as you say, the presence on site of boring tools, and the experiments made by Turk's colleage Guiliano Bastiani who successfully produced similar holes in fresh bone using tools of the type found at the site (pp. 176-78 Turk).
They also wrote (pp. 171-75) that:
* The center-to-center distances of the holes in the artifact are smaller than that of the tooth span of most carnivores. The smallest tooth spans they found were 45mm, and the holes on the bone are 35mm;
* Holes bitten are usually at the ends of bones rather than in the center of them;
* There is an absence of dents, scratches and other signs of gnawing and counter-bites on the artifact;
* The center-to-center distances do not correspond to the spans of carnivores which could pierce the bone;
* The diameters of the holes are greater than that produceable by a wolf exerting the greatest jaw pressure it had available -- in any event, they say it's doubtful that a wolf's jaws would be strong enough (like a hyena's) to have made the holes, especially in the thickest part of the wall of ther artifact.
To account for the possible difficulty about the tooth spans not matching a wolf or other carnivores, Nowell and Chase appear to mention "one or more" carnivores. But neither they, nor Turk, make mention of the line-up of the holes, which would be remarkable if they were made by more than one carnivore, which apparently they'd have to accept MUST have been so, based on the center-spans.
If you accept one or more carnivores, then why did they target one bone, when there were so many other bones in the cave site? Only about 4.5% of the juvenile bones were chewed or had holes, according to Turk (p. 117).
My arguments over the year have pointed out the mathematical odds of this occuring by chance are too difficult to believe.
When Current Archeology wrote to me April 7 (a year ago, 1997), indicating that the magazine "consulted the experts, and they say that the holes do not show the micro-wear that is normal in flutes. Instead it is suggested that they may be tooth marks of a wild animal and the positioning of the holes may therefore be purely random," I replied to "Current Archeolgy" on April 7, '97: "The Appendix in [my] essay proves that the number of ways a set of 4 random holes could be differently spaced (to produce an audibly different set of tones) are 680 ways. The chances a random set would match the existing fragment's spacing [which also could produce a match to four] diatonic notes of the scale are therefore only one in hundreds. If you also allowed the holes to be out of line, or to be less than 4 holes as well, then the number available randomly is augmented into only one in many thousands. And yet randomness and animal bites would still be acceptable [to your experts] account for holes being in line that [could also] play notes of the scale...?"
---------------------- UPDATE, MARCH, 2000 ------------------------------
In order to appreciate the notion of accident or chance to create a set of 4 holes that are in line, here is a rough calculation of how many different ways the 4 holes on the Neanderthal bone could be out-of-line, which I think can be easily followed without any math ability other than grade-school multiplication skills:
First, what do we mean by "out of line"?
Using the expected accuracy of ancient crafts-persons to create a hole in a chosen position, I think few would argue with a tolerance of +/-1/4 (or 1/2) of a hole diameter. Also, I think this amount out of line, or more, would be visibly noticeable to any observer as out of line.
(for a rough, user-friendly calculation):
If you move only one hole up or down a bit -- say, by about +/-1/4 of a hole diameter (about 1/4 inch) -- without moving the hole left or right-- then you can repeat at least 10 such moves for that one hole (until you move up over the bone, down the back and come back to the original position). Each move would be a case of throwing the holes (taken as a whole set ) visibly out of line even though the remaining 3 holes are still in line with each other. So by moving only one hole we can, so far, get 10 ways to misalign the set of 4 holes as a set.
Now, if you moved this first hole at the same time that you also moved a second hole up or down (now throwing two holes out of line from the remaining two) then there would now be 100 different positions available that would be visibly out of line with the remaining two holes -- or 10 positions for the first hole times 10 for the second hole.
You can see the formula emerging from this for all 4 holes being out of line with each other:
There would be 10 x 10 x 10 x 10 -- namely, 10,ooo different ways to provide that bone with 4 holes, each out-of-line with the others except in one case, all without producing any two bones alike.
This means the odds (so far in this calculation) against that set of 4 holes being in line by accident are 10,ooo to 1.
[Sort of like watching a Las Vegas gambling machine's 4 symbol wheels (with plums, cherries, et al on them), rolling up or down, hoping (usually in vain) to get a lined-up match of 4 alike. Very similar slim odds.]
However, we can also move the holes left and right too -- which is the way Mike Finley & I produced the 680 other "scale spacings" that would not match do-re-mi-fa, and which represents our earlier calculation of horizontal odds in my essay's Appendix:
That means, not only can we get the diatonic set of hole-spacings out of line in 10,ooo vertical ways, but if the holes were horizontally spaced any other way -- say, equally spaced -- then that would be another 10,ooo ways to misalign that equally-spaced scale (or horizontal spacing of holes) -- again, all without producing any two bones alike.
Again, the arithmetic emerging is clear: There are 680 ways to differently space the holes left and right; and about 10,ooo ways to misalign the holes up or down (for each spacing or scale).
Or, 10,ooo x 680, which equals 6,8oo,ooo ways (or about 7 million ways) that a set of 4 holes could appear anywhere on that size bone without ANY of the ways being a repeat of any other way, within a tolerance of +/-1/4th of a hole diameter.
Here is an example of a bone that would represent just one of those many ways for four holes to be placed:
Check this arithmetic with anyone.
The figure would change depending on the tolerance we chose, above, about what constitutes a minimum amount to move a hole to consider it in a new position. For the +/-1/4 of a hole diameter tolerance, the figure is about 7 million.
The result is this conclusion:
For randomness to produce such an object as was actually found, to match a possible do-re-mi-fa flute, the probability would be only about 1 chance in 7 million.
This is a conservative figure, because this also happened on a bone whose hole diameters are very similar; a bone that was hollow, not solid; on a bone that was very cylindrical, not like a skull or jaw bone, and so on. What further odds do we add for all that and for each of the other conditions all being present for this bone, like proximity to a fireplace; absence of marrow, absence of other gnawing marks, no match to any known predator's tooth-span able to pierce the bone, and so on??
Again, while each item alone could be shown to also have a possible carnivore or chance origin, all of them taken together, as a whole set of circumstances, cannot be likely at all, as chance.
If we can apply taphonomy to this bone, and when taphonomic experts disagree, why exclude applying a math or probablility study like this one?
Bob Fink 3/19/2000
See also the compelling taphonomic evidence here.
* More details on this calculation
* See general note below.
Update: Jan 2004 -- * Lacking clear taphonomic evidence,
how could we tell artifact from accident?
Letter from Mike Finely, March 23, 2000.
[Abridged -- And with which I substantially agree -- B. F.]
1. It should be made absolutely clear that you are calculating the odds of getting a straight line by randomly punching holes in a bone. And also that this is not actually a calculation of the odds of natural processes producing the straight line, because natural processes are not strictly random.
2. Discuss natural processes to attempt some justification of the simple random model as a useful exercise. We cannot know all the mechanisms at work in nature..... Perhaps introduce the Great Square Jawed Diatonic Sloth as an [extreme] example. [Ed.: An invention of Mike's: A Sloth whose tooth-span pattern is in a straight line and matches the spacings of a diatonic sequence of musical notes -- and who goes around biting diatonic flutes into existence for lunch]. Indicate on the other hand that the most obvious [and less imaginative] mechanisms known to palaeontologists and archaeologists don't [usually] produce straight lines. Allude to the multiple bite hypothesis, stating that [almost] everyone thinks it unlikely.
3. Conclude that while your random model [above] is just that--- a drastically simplified model-- it nonetheless provides a rough "order of magnitude" of the kind of odds likely involved in producing a straight line of holes [spaced diatonically] without a guiding hominid hand.
4. Coincidences do happen.... Note that since you can't quantify all the real world factors, you can't in good conscience assert that the odds you calculate would allow one to set up a proper statistical "confidence level" in regard to the conclusion that the bone is an artefact.... Call for more research.
I think all these qualifications would actually strengthen your case.
I still don't really like attaching seemingly exact numbers to things when there are unknown factors at work that might mean that the real numbers are very different.... So, make clear the limitations of the calculation and don't claim it proves your case. -- Mike
Letter from member of Swedish Institute of Biomusicology:
...I have not seen your argument against d'Errico - I guess that's the publication in Antiquity arguing against the "flute" on the basis of thousands of bones, some with holes in them, yes?
I read it and was appalled at the bias that pervaded their write-up (and wrote Turk about it). Their bone collection convinced me in favor of Turk, because the one thing they maintain studious silence about is the linear arrangement of the holes - they do not have a single bone among those thousands which comes even close to the striking linear alignment of Turk's holes (I gather from what you say that this is part of your argument against them), and not to discuss this central and crucial issue is just bad scholarship and bad science.
But {there are} academic theories about the status of stake, and so they fight with the fury of theologians... The strange thing about science is that it progresses despite the biasses of its practitioners, but that can be a long process in which lives are ruined along the way....
B.M. 1/9/2000 Sweden
"A Bone to Pick"
By Bob Fink (Sent May 5, 1998)
I have a bone to pick with Francesco d'Errico's viewpoint in the March issue of Antiquity (article too long to reproduce here) regarding the Neanderthal flute found in Slovenia by Ivan Turk.
D'Errico argues the bone artifact is not a flute. D'Errico omits dealing with the best evidence that this bone find is a flute.
Regarding the most important evidence, that of the holes being lined up, neither d'Errico nor Turk make mention of this.
This line-up is remarkable especially if they were made by more than one carnivore, which apparently they'd have to be, based on Turk's analysis of the center-spans of the holes precluding their being made by a single carnivore or bite (Turk,* pp.171-175). To account for this possible difficulty, some doubters do mention "one or more" carnivores (Chase & Nowell, Science News 4/4/98).
My arguments over the past year pointed out the mathematical odds of the lining up of the holes occurring by chance-chewing are too difficult to believe.
The Appendix in my essay ("Neanderthal Flute --A Musicological Analysis" -- proves that the number of ways a set of 4 random holes could be differently spaced (to produce an audibly different set of tones) are 680 ways. The chances a random set would match the existing fragment's spacing [which also could produce a match to four diatonic notes of the scale] are therefore only one in hundreds. If, in calculating the odds, you also allowed the holes to be out of line, or to be less than 4 holes as well, then the chance of a line-up match is only one from many tens of thousands.
And yet randomness and animal bites still are acceptable to account for holes being in line that could also play some notes of the scale? This is too much coincidence for me to believe occurred by chance.
D'Errico mentions my essay in his article and what he thought it was about, but he overstates my case into being a less believable one. My case simply was that if the bone was long enough (or a shorter bone extended by a mouthpiece insert) then the 4 holes would be consistent and in tune with the sounds of Do, Re, Mi, Fa (or flat Mi, Fa, Sol, and flat La in a minor scale).
In the 5 points I list below, extracted from Turk's monograph in support of this being a flute, d'Errico omits dealing with much of the first, and all of the second, fourth and sixth points.
Turk & Co's monograph shows the presence on site of boring tools, and includes experiments made by Turk's colleague Guiliano Bastiani who successfully produced similar holes in fresh bone using tools of the type found at the site (pp. 176-78 Turk).
They also wrote (pp. 171-75) that:
1. The center-to-center distances of the holes in the artifact are smaller than that of the tooth spans of most carnivores. The smallest tooth spans they found were 45mm, and the holes on the bone are 35mm (or less) apart;
2. Holes bitten are usually at the ends of bones rather than in the center of them;
3. There is an absence of dents, scratches and other signs of gnawing and counter-bites on the artifact;
4. The center-to-center distances do not correspond to the spans of carnivores which could pierce the bone;
5. The diameters of the holes are greater than that producible by a wolf exerting the greatest jaw pressure it had available -- it's doubtful that a wolf's jaws would be strong enough (like a hyena's) to have made the holes, especially in the thickest part of the wall of the artifact.
6. If you accept one or more carnivores, then why did they over-target one bone, when there were so many other bones in the cave site? Only about 4.5% of the juvenile bones were chewed or had holes, according to Turk (p. 117).
* Turk Ivan, Ed., Mousterian Bone Flute, (Znanstvenoraziskovalni Center Sazu, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 1997)
(Update, Jan., 2002):

What Made The Neanderthal Flute?

Some of you may have read or discussed recent materials published on whales, biomusicology, and ancient flutes. The debate has also re-surfaced about whether the Neanderthal Flute is a manufactured flute or a carnivore-originated object.
Others may have heard or read, at a Sept 2ooo conference of music archaeologists, Francesco d'Errico's most recent views claiming the Neanderthal flute had a carnivore origin, where no opposing view was able to be formally presented then. [However, the proceedings publication, due in mid-2002, will contain a reply by myself to some of these views, containing an outline of evidence that it is a flute from Ivan Turk (who found the Neanderthal bone).]
In the interests of a balance of views, including those of Ivan Turk and others, below is some brief updated evidence on the other side of the debate.
The evidence demonstrates this bone is indeed a flute, consistent as well with hole spacings that match a do-re-mi-fa sequence of tones.

Summary of d'Errico view

Teeth marks on the Neanderthal "flute" are offered by Francesco d'Errico as evidence that the bone is created by carnivores. D'Errico's earlier comparative evidence (published without first-hand examination of the bone) comes from looking at holes in other bones found where only carnivores were present, thus they were known to be naturally made holes -- and, because some of them looked like one or other of the holes in the Neanderthal bone, d'Errico concluded that the Neanderthal bone was a natural object.
And that seems to be, in short, d'Errico's & colleagues' entire case that the bone is not an artifact.


But in looking at the d'Errico illustrations or descriptions of teeth-marks [see: d'Errico, Francesco. 2000. Sur les traces de l'Homo symbolicus. La Recherche, Hors Serie No. 4, pp. 22-25.], I cannot help but notice, yet again, something else besides these unconvincing scratches (which were already admitted to exist by Turk).
Simply look at the flute!
(Picture of the flute shown at: or above]
Indulge in an analogy for a moment: Suppose that the line-up of holes looked like letters, instead of like round "O"s.
Suppose the first opening looked like an F, the next like an L, the next like a U, and the 4th like a T. And suppose the opposite 5th presumed opening looks like an E. Taken separately, I suppose one could of course find a hole or crackage that looks like any one of the openings.
Take the F, for example. Like d'Errico, suppose I go to a cave where no hominoid had ever been, and find an object with a similar "F-like" shape on it.
Or find also a different bone there, with a "T-like" shape. As an object, taking one "letter" at a time, I can claim for my case that I have several individual natural objects that resemble either the T or the F or the U or the L, etc.
It would be no surprise that nature could accidentally have done that, right? We've all seen odd shaped crackages or openings that can look like something familiar. So do I now "conclude," as did d'Errico, since the holes in my no-hombre-cave objects can look like any one of the openings on the Neanderthal bone, that therefore, "this N-bone is a natural object"?
Now then, do you now see the fatal flaw in this d'Errico case?

Fatal Flaw -- Emperor's New Clothes

The flaw is that they fail to see the Neanderthal bone as a whole. None of the comparitive bones that d'Errico & co. found in caves where no hominoids had ever been had a set of 3 or more holes in line, nor looked anything like the Neanderthal bone.
As a whole, the in-line openings, which also match a known scale spacing, really indicate, or, figuratively speaking, "spell out," that this is a F-L-U-T-E. If the openings really DID look like actual alphabet letters spelling the word "flute," it would just be more unquestionably apparent that a gross failure to "see the whole" was committed.
It is equally as incompetent for an observer to ignore that the bone-holes accurately match a very unique scale-spacing [and especially to ignore that the holes are lined-up], as it would be to ignore addressing such a matter if the object actually looked like it was spelling-out an actual word: "FLUTE"!
It is exactly like the Emperor's New Clothes fable, in which it is announced the emperor will parade the town in his new garments.
The emperor instead shows up naked, but no one dares notice the obvious. No one says a word of that, and the protocol of "Nice clothes," or "Oh, pretty colours," murmurs through the crowd.
This protocol represents the powerful taphonomic reputation of d'Errico.
Only a novice child, who cannot fathom taphonomic protocol, says "Look, mommy!! The emperor has no clothes!!"
Likewise, d'Errico and supporters all blindly fail or completely ignore seeing or addressing the naked truth that is here really obvious:
"Look, mommy! They see the "letters," but not the word!! They see the holes, but not the whole, not the lined-up scale; They see the trees, but not the forest."

Actual List of Evidence

Analogy aside, here is a quick factual list of what they do not see nor will address (other than claiming coincidence):
* The object visually spells out that this is a flute for any eyes that see all the bone's entire features as a whole:
* The near-circular holes are in line, and all similarly sized;
* The holes are in the right order and spacing (just like an actual spelling), enabling them (if there was an extension of the bone) to play the sounds of do, re, mi and fa -- which is virtually as unlikely to occur by chance, as is finding the spelling of a real word like "F-L-U-T-E" imitated by chance;
* The 5 openings fit the whole human hand and the size of fingers (noted by Marcel Otte);
* There are chipping marks claimed to be laterally round the center holes showing that drilling-like handiwork took place;
* It was found near a fireplace;
* The openings are on a cylindrical hollow bore like other known flutes;
* The openings fit no known toothspans with such tooth-shapes or jaw-power of any one carnivore;
* Therefore, if bitten into existence, the openings had to be made in that orderly formation by several separately-acting bites to make each opening;
* There are no counter-bites findable on the opposite side of the bone openings that should be there, IF the holes were bitten into existence;
And so on and so on-- some of you have read it several times before, and if others haven't, or are new to this, see this page to read all the additional massive evidence -- and then: Ask yourself: Which is likelier? -- That nature, by coincidence, carved out flute holes, in-line, with a known acoustic scale's spacing, with the same-sized openings, etc, etc., -- Or that somebody made it that way? [My calculations show the odds against it being a chance object are at least millions to one.]
Some dismiss it all, saying: "These kinds of unusual, coincidental things do happen." But to say such a thing, about an object requiring such a huge miracle of coincidence to exist "naturally," clearly reveals that they don't understand the size of the odds, or want to deny it is a flute and claim it's naturally-made as a given premise or pre-ordained conclusion -- and, because the above-listed evidence doesn't fit that prior conclusion, that evidence must therefore all be dismissed, or "not be seen" or addressed, like the emperor's nakedness.
-- Bob Fink
Update: Jan 2004 -- * Lacking clear taphonomic evidence,
how could we tell artifact from accident?
Date: Wed, 22 Mar 2000
From: Bonnie Blackwell To: Greenwich
Ivan Turk now has rebutted d'Errico's arguments in an article submitted to Current Anthropology. hopefully it will be out this year.
They have also found incised teeth and bones from earlier layers. These could not have been incised by wear or animals. More details later as I have them. --b
Bob wrote:
Could someone use an animal's tooth for a hole-punch?
Bonnie replied:
They could (have used a tooth for a hole punch), but did not. It is much easier to make the hole with a flake tool. The holes' edges do not show the type of incisions that would occur with a punch. They have striations that go around the hole, not from the top to the bottom of the hole." --b
So! D'Errico claimed (from photos, I presume -- or from Nowell & Chase perhaps, who did see the bone) that there were "no signs" of tool marks.
Therefore, Bonnie (and/or Turk) see striations where there are none -- or there are striations ("a minute groove, scratch, or channel especially when one of a parallel series") and the holes do show signs of thus being circularly bored or drilled.
Fang or Flint???
The plot thickens.....Tune in next time. See general note below
Updated evidence that flute was made by Neanderthals

Came across something slightly relevant to issue of whether the Neanderthal flute is a flute. This time it has to do with art rather than music.
Until very recently, earliest evidence of visual art was from early modern humans (Cro-magnon)-- cave paintings and small figurines of fat "fertility goddesses". The latter date to about 30,000 BC. It was widely thought that earlier humans lacked capacity for art--- this is some of the reason for doubts about Neanderthal music, since music, like the visual arts, requires conceptualization, creativity etc.
However, a recent discovery in Palestine seems to over-turn this: It is a figurine of a fertility goddess dated to at least 230,000 BC, perhaps even to 800,000 BC. This is even pre-Neanderthal--- associated with Acheulian stone tools, made by Homo erectus (the species that includes Peking Man, Java Man etc.).
One interesting thing about the image is that it is remarkably similar to the Cro-magnon fertility goddess ("Willendorf Venus")-- just as the Neanderthal flute seems similar to Cro-magnon flutes!!
--Mike Finley
Below left: Acheulian Goddess; Below right: Willendorf Venus
ED NOTE: This picture of the Acheulian figurine is apparently a commercial restoration, and the actual object, for the sake of accuracy, is shown just below.
Further comments on this discrepancy can be found at:
From: "tom weiss" <>
Dear Bob, Found this article in my copy of the Arizona Republic newspaper today. Thought you might enjoy reading it ... the attached jpeg is a picture of 6 nice bone flutes. If the picture is not viewable by you, not much is lost. I noted they referenced your work (?) without giving you credit. --Tom
Oldest [playable] Instrument Found in China
AP Science Writer
Arizona Republic newspaper
SEPTEMBER 23, 1999 -- Archaeologists in China have found what is believed to be the oldest still-playable musical instrument: a 9,000-year-old flute carved from the wing bone of a crane. When scientists from the United States and China blew gently through the mottled brown instrument's mouthpiece and fingered its holes, they produced tones unheard for millennia, yet familiar to the modern ear. (Pictured below, 2nd from bottom)
"It's a reedy, pleasant sound, a little thin, like a recorder," said Garman Harbottle, a nuclear scientist who specializes in radiocarbon dating at Brookhaven National Laboratory on New York's Long Island. Harbottle and three Chinese archaeologists published their findings in today's issue of the journal Nature.
The flute was one of several instruments to be uncovered in Jiahu, a excavation site of Stone Age artifacts in China's Yellow River Valley. Archaeologists have also found exquisitely wrought tools, weapons and pottery. Dated to 7,000 B.C., the flute is more than twice as old as instruments used in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and other early civilizations. In all, researchers have found some three dozen bone flutes at Jiahu. Five were riddled with cracks; 30 others had fragmented. The flutes have as many as eight neatly hollowed tone holes and were held vertically to play. The Jiahu flute is considerably more recent than a flutelike bone discovered in 1995 in an excavation of Neanderthal tools in a cave in Slovenia. That artifact was believed to be more than 43,000 years old, but musicologists question whether it is an instrument.
In contrast, there is no doubt among researchers that the Jiahu artifacts are instruments capable of playing multinote music. Music historians and archaeologists were intrigued by the find. "You would never have one of these flutes in a symphony. But clearly, these people knew what an octave sounded like," Harbottle said. He said the flute can make what sounds like a ‘do-re-mi' scale. It even has a tiny hole drilled near hole No. 7, apparently to correct an off-pitch tone.
Scholars said the bone flutes provide further proof that prehistoric Chinese culture was not crude. Music played an integral role, perhaps combined with astronomical observations and other rituals that helped to rule their society, they said. That the flutes were made of durable bone rather than bamboo, as later flutes were, also suggests they were culturally important, and not mere amusements. In fact, some scholars believe the Chinese written character for "sound" is a stylized representation of a vertical flute held in the mouth.
"That they would go to the trouble of constructing such instruments suggests a certain importance was placed on sound, and an attention to aesthetic concerns," said Jonathan Stock, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Sheffield in England, and a specialist in Chinese musical history.
The flutes were uncovered at Jiahu in the 1980s. Their tonal qualities initially were tested in 1987. The intact Jiahu flute remains locked in a laboratory in China, but replicas may be constructed for more tonal tests.
From Bob Fink:
Dear Tom:
Thank you very much for sending the text of the story. It quotes Harbottle on a matter not found in any other story. Only 2 days ago I was interviewed by the FOX News science writer on this matter. Her article can be found at -- under the "sci-tech" menu link. I attach her story at bottom for your interest. She also faxed me the full write-up from Nature magazine, where I saw their reference to the article in Science about me.
It's the first independent academic reference I have received from others that I know of, even if not by my name. Now Fox has written me into the story by name, too. Which means my work is now a bonafide part of background references for people in the field -- even as far away as China. This pleases me no end. It's the work and not my name that really matters most to me after all. Perhaps there is still a town-vs-gown reluctance to deal too directly with a non-academic amateur like me.
The equal-spacings on the latest Chinese flute cannot play do, re, mi closely in tune -- as Harbottle indicates -- but it is well-established, even by doubting ethnomusicologists, that singers, in the very same culture (in which are found such equal spaced instruments), who accompany such equal-spaced instruments (spaced equally for finger-width convenience and/or esthetics) will sing intervals acoustically in tune, despite the slightly acoustically off-tune instruments.
Also, the fact that they divided the octave yet again into 7 notes indicates (when numerical systems otherwise tend to 5's and 10's [as per our own toes & fingers]) that they felt pressed to somewhat match diatonic intervals within the octave, tolerating the slightly off-tune result from equal-spaced flute holes. Using 5 or 10 hole-divisions of the octave won't work well for an attempted match.
Thanks again. -- Bob Fink
Distant Melodies -- Recently Uncovered Ancient Flute
Sings a Prehistoric History
By Amanda Onion
NEW YORK -- Long ago in China, someone picked up the hollow wing bone of a crane, smoothed the edges and bored seven holes along one side. Then, perhaps to correct for an off-key note, they drilled an even smaller hole beside the last. Last month and 9,000 years later, a musician picked up the same ancient instrument and played a Chinese folk song _ using that extra, pitch-correcting hole. It played perfectly.
"The guy [not a woman?--BF] had obviously spent a lot of time on it," said Garman Harbottle, a chemist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island who wrote about the ancient flute in this week's journal, Nature. "He didn't want to throw it away, so he found a way to correct it."
A New Art Form
Archeological evidence has shown that people have created musical instruments since the ancestors of modern man first appeared. The earliest instruments -- such as whistles and drums -- were most likely crafted with a purpose in mind. Drums provided a form of communication over long distances and whistles could lure a bird or other creature to their human predator.
Later, people discovered scales -- a graduated series of notes that make ear-pleasing melodies when played in certain sequences. Now, for the first time, scientists have a sense of just what kind of sound ancient musicians may have produced during the Neolithic period of human history.
The 9,000-year-old flute that weathered the centuries to remain in unusually fine condition was found at the village of Jiahu, located by the central Yellow River valley in China. The site is particularly rich with artifacts including turquoise carvings, elaborate pottery and a carved tortoise shell with engraved characters that some believe could be the ancestor of later Chinese writing. "This was a flourishing, rich culture," said David Keightley, a historian of Ancient China at the University of California at Berkeley. "Because they were able to feed themselves well, they had high cultural development."
Harbottle suspects the Neolithic people lived in a structured society where individuals may have carried out roles in the community. Music may have been one of those roles. Archaeologists found evidence of more than 30 flutes at the site, all made from the wing bone of the red-crowned crane and carved with five to seven holes. The instruments were delicate, measuring about 20 centimeters in length and one and a half centimeters in width. And all were found inside graves among the 400 human burials excavated at the site.
Thousands of years later, only one of these flutes could produce music without signs of strain. The 22-centimeter flute created very thin, high-pitched notes that resemble the sound of a person whistling.
Intuitive Design
Most significantly, Harbottle says the seven notes on the instrument comprise a nearly accurate octave.
Robert Fink, a musicologist in Saskatchewan, Canada, points out that in nearly every other matter -- money, distance and time -- humans divide things into units of ten. It's only in music that cultures have settled on octaves -- a range of seven notes with the first note repeated at the end -- to arrange their music.
"The nature of sound, itself, is what ends up cutting the steps out of the continuum of sound for us," Fink said. "It overrides the usual desire to make things equal." [See Scales' bases.]
One of the most compelling pieces of evidence that music is intuitive lies in the design of what is thought to be the oldest instrument ever recovered. In July, 1995, a Slovenian archaeologist found a 43,000-year-old fragment of a bear femur bone in a cave in northern former Yugoslavia. Carved into the bone were two complete holes in the middle and two partial holes carved at each of its broken ends. The distance between the holes indicated that Neanderthals once played [notes in] the same musical scale -- known as the diatonic or do re me scale -- that is used today.
The evenly distributed holes in the Chinese flute suggest it did not play the whole and half-note sequences of the diatonic scale. Instead, Harbottle and colleagues suspect it may be part of one of two ancient Chinese scales that were documented six millennia later.
The Jiahu settlement that spanned 1,300 years was not advanced enough to leave behind any written records of its own. But documents from much later cultures in China appear to allude to the settlement's ancient flutists.
Upon learning about the bird-bone flutes, James Watt, the curator of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reconsidered a Chinese legend that was recorded about 7,000 years after the end of the Jiahu settlement. In the legend, the flutist's music is so mesmerizing that large cranes flock from the sky and gather around the musician. Watt asked, why cranes? "The flutes from that period were made of bamboo, not bone," he said. "The connection between the crane and the flute likely came from how the instruments were made thousands of years earlier."
In order to better analyze the music of these bone flutes, Chinese scientists plan to create replicas of the instruments. And if they make a mistake, their ancient ancestors have already demonstrated how to correct a note.
After studying the Nature article I made an updated picture illustrating the pitches. The holes are not as equally spaced as first look would indicate. --Bob Fink
More: Further discussion sparked by 9,ooo yr-old flute find
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GENERAL NOTE: October, 2000
I received a letter reporting on a recent conference in Germany of music archeologists which indicated the Neanderthal bone flute had been discussed. The reporter observed that for those who were previously pretty convinced that the Neanderthal bone WAS a flute, the evidence provided by the archaeologists/anthropologists was rather convincing: In general, nearly everyone was convinced by the comparative bone evidence (but not one looked like a flute as the Neanderthal bone does) that it is a startling but chance similarity to a flute. [But the idea was not given up entirely.]
Prof. Bonnie Blackwell has claimed the markings on the bone do not conform to a tooth bite, are not smooth, but have striations running round the hole: "The holes' edges do not show the type of incisions that would occur with a punch. They have striations that go around the hole, not from the top to the bottom of the hole."
D'Errico's view that the holes are smooth appear to be without credibility, especially as I was given to understand that d'Errico never examined the actual bone first-hand at the time of his conclusion.
But even conceding this point, Marcel Otte (above) points out that traces of hominid activity could have been obliterated in such an old bone, rather than having never been there.
This would make all other evidence far more relevant and valuable than the disputed taphonomic evidence. But few will look at any other evidence.
[Update: Jan 2004 -- * Lacking clear taphonomic evidence, how could we tell artifact from accident? ]
I have read d'Errico's article several times, and I cannot see what some feel is so "convincing" about it. It is a conclusion based on comparisons to single holes made by nature or bites on other bones. That these could be similar shape could indicate any one of the Neanderthal bone holes might be a bitten hole -- but not all four holes in line. There are no discovered bones anywhere among the thousands found, formed by natural means, that have ALL these features:
Holes in-line; on a cylindrical hollow bone; all of very similar diameter; found in close proximity to a fireplace. Not to mention capable of playing do-re-mi-fa notes!!
Further, the holes cannot have been formed by one animal bite, as the distances between holes match no known tooth-span of animals with the strength to bite-through. The expected scratches and surrounding marks that would accompany such bitten holes do not appear on the N-bone, and such holes appear in virtually none of the many bones found in the Neanderthal cave -- as would be expected if animals had been there to gnaw at the bones. Virtually all holes appear only in the one single bone.
The whole conclusion against it being an artifact rests on two things:
First: D'Errico's reputation and:
Secondly, on the so-called "need" -- (even by those, like d'Errico & Robert Bednarik, who do not believe Neanderthals are dumb brutes) -- to avoid accepting an artifact that revolutionizes concepts about Neanderthals unless it meets standards of proof, as Bednarik wrote me, that are in excess of what is amply sufficient to constitute probable proof when an item is found among homo-sapien digs. But it seems to me the standards demanded for the Neanderthal bone are next to impossible to meet.
Sort of like the Black cop who brutalizes Black lawbreakers even more than white cops do -- to prove he isn't playing favourites toward his own Black people.
The d'Errico & co. and Chase/Nowell articles are a dismissal of ALL the powerful evidence for it being an artifact-flute apparently because this evidence does not fit the pre-determined conclusion.
Reliance on "coincidence" in order to dismiss this evidence could almost be taken seriously if it weren't for the apparent ignorance of simple probability arithmetic that makes this "coincidence" that we are asked to accept equivalent to a full-scale mammoth miracle, and thus makes the dismissal of this evidence border on the absurd. Buy that & you'd buy the Brooklyn Bridge.
In fairness, like the authors of this view, most people have their pockets emptied at gambling casinos and at lottery booths because we likewise tend to grossly and extremely overestimate our chances of winning or getting 4 plums in a row, thinking it must be 1 chance in 400 or even 1-in-40 -- not realizing, that if there are ten symbols on each of the 4 wheels, then there is actually only 1 chance in 10,000 to get a 4-plum line-up!
Similarly, there are at least 10 places around the bone where any of the holes (like plums) could be vertically out-of-line, which make the odds of the holes being in-line (by chance) the same or similar as the casino odds. [Not to mention multiplying this by the odds that make the horizontal hole-spacings consistent with do-re-mi-fa -- which then makes the total odds astronomical.]
Had the authors realized the cosmic size of the next-to-impossible "coincidence" (1 in millions) that they invoked in order to avoid admitting it was indeed an artifact, they'd know how ludicrous is their ignoring of this evidence and how narrow & parochial is their not allowing a scientific but "non-archaeological" analysis (a simple probability study) to bring light on the matter for them.
For those denying the bone is an artifact, the similarity of any of its holes to a naturally formed or bitten hole is certainly "suggestive" evidence, but dismissing that evidence does not even come close to violating the norms of probability as does the dismissal of the line-up of the holes.
Why rely on miracle coincidence to deny it's an artifact when you can face that the obvious and most probable evidence is not coincidence, and conclude, if not prove, it probably is an artifact?
The dismissal of the evidence would be irrational if it wasn't known that other motives may exist to make this false conclusion into the chosen conclusion.
As Otte wrote [Current Anthropology Volume 41, Number 2, April 2000]:
"The idea of Mousterian ineptitude is one of the deepest and one of the most perverse because it reassures us about ourselves. The destiny of the Mousterian flute discovered at Divje Babe was preordained: it could be only disputable and doubtful, a priori."
Update: Jan 2004 -- * Lacking clear taphonomic evidence,
how could we tell artifact from accident?

* Updated evidence that flute was made by Neanderthals

* Click here for continuation of GENERAL correspondence.

* The Validity of Ethnomusicology

* RETURN to previous correspondence

* Return to Essay

Updated Mar 2003-- Two New Books on Music Origins & Music Archaeology
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