Neanderthal jam

A man holds the ancient flute, about 5 inches long, in rubber-gloved hands.This 50,000-year-old Neanderthal flute was discovered in Slovenia by Ivan Turk, pictured. Does it contain clues to the musical scales used by the ancients?
Photo ©Jelle Atema

You could learn a lot from old musical instruments. We're not talking about a pawnshop full of rusted saxophones and busted guitars, but about partly fossilized bones with holes that look suspiciously like wind instruments.

We're talking Neanderthal flute -- circa 50,000 BC.

These codgerly instruments could answer some key questions: What scale -- relationship among notes -- did the ancients use? What did their music sound like, and why did they make it? Ancient instruments, says Jelle Atema, a Boston University biologist and flute fanatic, provide "a window into what people may have heard a long time ago, what they played and what they wanted to hear." Atema is an accomplished amateur flutist who -- if you have to know -- gets paid to study lobster communication. Lobsters make little music -- which is just as well, cuz otherwise we might have drawn a wrasse wearing a Walkman -- but they do have a habit of discussing social status with chemical signals in their urine!

Golden oldies
Getting back on track, music goes back a long way, but it's unclear exactly how long. Paintings show people playing instruments in ancient Egypt and Sumeria. And, intriguingly, some stalagmites -- stony projections from cave floors -- show marks from striking instruments. Since the rocks still make musical sounds when banged, it's easy to presume that the ancients used them as chimes.

The evidence is scantier for instruments that were constructed rather than found. Strings rot. Ditto drum heads. Thus, says Atema, it "may be that they long preceded flutes, but we'll never know."

First flute
Until recently, the oldest known instruments were reed flutes from Egypt and Sumeria dating to about 5,000 years ago. In 1997, Atema got his mitts on a flute that was 10 times older. The instrument, found in Slovenia, was apparently made by Neanderthal people about 50,000 years ago from the bone of a cave bear. The flute is the oldest musical instrument to be firmly dated.

In reality, Atema didn't get to play the original. Instead, he played the reconstruction shown in the photo, which he made from cave-bear bone. This ancient flute was made from the bone of a cave bear.Nonetheless, he reports that the reconstruction "produced five sweet tones in odd intervals. Altering the pitches by blowing and fingering could make the instrument sound like a modern flute (although with a small range)."

Atema, who wanted to become a professional flutist before turning to the lingo of lobsters, found that the flute played well in modern scales -- as long as he partly closed holes and used unusual fingerings. "I can play a very clear pentatonic or diatonic scale with it because you can twist the sound any way you like," he says.

Diatonic scales are used in most Western music.

Musical training is both an advantage and a liability, Atema intimates, "You automatically twist [the tone] to make what you want." The resulting sound may be easier on our ears, trained as they are on Western scales, but the bending undermines the effort to pin down the ancient scales. Although some people think the instrument could identify the Neanderthal scale, Atema disagrees. "I don't subscribe to it. It's very frustrating -- that's what everybody is really looking for."

Caveman clarinet?
Can the bone flute tell us whether the ancients played for enjoyment or, say, to attract mates or lure birds into bow-and-arrow range? Here, too, Atema says the Slovenian flute, like other ancient replicas he's played, is disturbingly silent.

A bone cannot reveal motivation.

On the other hand, the flute does indicate technical prowess among the Neanderthals who made it 50 millennia ago. To understand why, permit a digression on the category "flute": All instruments that make sound by splitting an air stream are flutes. The category includes transverse flutes like the familiar silver flute, which are played sideways, and two models played straight-on: the recorder, and the quena used in Andean music.

Where does the Slovenian flute fit? Slight breaks in the bone make the answer ambiguous. Slovenian musical experts Ivan Turk and Drago Kunej reconstructed it as a quena, a flute in which the player directs the airstream precisely at the element that divides the air to make sound.

Atema thinks the geezingest flute is just as likely to be a recorder, a more complicated instrument that directs the airstream through a channel to make an instrument easy enough for a six-year-old to play (if "play" is defined as making any sort of sound).

If Atema's recorder hypothesis is correct, the flute probably represents the fruit of a musical tradition that started long before the instrument itself was crafted 50,000 years ago.

David Tenenbaum
feature writer

The Why Files. University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents
June 2000

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