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A Cave In Slovenia
Or, the bone with the holes in.
I play a few musical instruments, of which flutes of various sorts are my favourites. I have quite a few bamboo flutes, a metal one, and various ocarinas made of ceramic. One of the most unusual is a little flute made by a friend of mine from the bone of a small deer. It has four finger holes and a beeswax mouthpiece, and gives a high, pure sound. Bone flutes made from vulture and other bird bones are amongst the oldest evidence we have for homo sapiens’ presence in Europe. Some are around 43,000 years old, plus or minus a couple of millennia, which is very close to the time at which homo sapiens arrived to live there permanently. Clearly, modern humans appeared in Europe with their own music, and, presumably, with much more besides.
In Slovenia, meanwhile, a small piece of bone was discovered in a cave in 1995. Though not a bird bone - it is a cave bear femur - its two holes and the two broken holes on either side of them give it the appearance of being a flute, or possibly part of one. This is the Divje Babe bone, over which much ink has been spilled; for some say it’s a flute, and some say it’s a bone bitten into by a cave hyena.
The dating of this bone originally placed it at around the 43,000BCE mark, which, if it is a flute, fits with what we already know. Subsequent testing however put it at 51,000 - 56,0000 years old.
There are two issues with this. The first is that such a date lies at the very furthest extent of standard archaeological dating, which explains the wide range and the caution with which we must treat the result. The second is that it places the bone into Neanderthal times. Could it be evidence therefore for the Neanderthals’ musical ability?
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve written about the possibilities of Neanderthal speech and communication. One hypothesis, devised by Steven Mithen and presented in his book The Singing Neanderthals, is that they used non-compositional language, with musical pitch and timbre, gesture, expression and body language all merged into one. Music, in this hypothesis, was not a separate cultural entity. It was instead a natural part of a holistic, gestural, intentional language. I like this hypothesis, which I think has a lot going for it.
The Divje Babe bone therefore could present our hypothesis with a problem. Neanderthals shouldn’t have the ability to comprehend a separate musicality independent of their speech. Music and communication would be all one thing - inseparable. If the most likely date of the bone’s existence is fifty thousand years ago and more, there are two options, one that Neanderthals did use it as a flute, the other that it is not a flute.
Much argument has been had over this bone from the Divje Babe cave. It is technically playable, including some overtones (one plus octaves up from the fundamental tone), albeit that only bone copies have been made and played. The two unbroken holes are pretty much circular. This is all supporting information, but it’s not evidence that the bone is a flute. You could just as well say using the same logic that a rock from that archaeological level in the cave is a drum. Moreover, microscopic analysis of the holes show no obvious patterns of tool use. The question of marks on the lower side - which would have been made by the biting animal’s lower jaw - is hotly debated. Some say they are there, some not. The circularity of the two undamaged holes can be explained by 50,000 years of natural erosion and wear. This leaves the status of the bone ambiguous.
In the comments section of a recent Facebook post about the bone which presumed it was a flute, I politely remarked that in fact the bone’s status is uncertain. A wave of “of course it’s a flute!” comments followed. Well, people usually believe what they want to believe - it’s more difficult to do the research and make an informed choice. If it looks like a flute, it must be a flute, right?
Yet, there is now a third option. Recent archaeological work in France has shown the existence of at least one temporary appearance of homo sapiens around 50,000BCE in Europe. This means the flute could have arrived with that trailblazing wave of modern humans. No need to invoke Neanderthal musicality...
Myself, I don’t think the bone is a flute. I go with the animal gnawing hypothesis. Neanderthals certainly had a concept of music, in that such a concept was part of their mode of speech. It was innate, just one aspect of their form of communication. Alas, they seem not to have had music as we know it. No flutes, no drums. Were you able to hear them speak, however, then I think you would have heard their music. You would have heard it in their speech patterns, in their tone of voice, in the vocal timbres they used.
You might call it music. But they would not. They wouldn’t grasp what you meant.