A Middle Palaeolithic Origin of Music? Using Cave-Bear Bone Accumulations to Assess the Divje Babe I Bone 'Flute.'

By D'Errico, Francesco; Villa, Paola et al. | Antiquity, March 1998 | Go to article overview
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A Middle Palaeolithic Origin of Music? Using Cave-Bear Bone Accumulations to Assess the Divje Babe I Bone 'Flute.'


D'Errico, Francesco, Villa, Paola, Pinto Llona, Ana C., Idarraga, Rosa Ruiz, Antiquity


The discovery of a perforated cave-bear femur from the Neanderthal levels at Divje Babe has been interpreted as the oldest musical instrument in Europe. Here we present the current discussion on the 'flute' and its implications for other similar bone finds from early prehistory,

No Stradivarius ever attracted such a large audience as the recent discovery of the Divje Babe I perforated cave-bear femur, described by the finders as possibly the oldest musical instrument found in Europe (Turk et al. 1995; 1996; 1997; Lau et al. 1996). The use of the object as a flute by Neanderthals has quickly become a fact in media coverage (Wilford 1996; Garrigues 1997; Hawkes 1997; Anon. 1997; Wong 1997). The piece has been reported as potential evidence for early music by some scholars (Bednarik 1996; Jelinek 1997). Reconstructions have been proposed suggesting that the bear bone is a segment of a flute about 37 cm long and capable of playing the entire seven-note scale on which Western music is based (Fink 1997).

An extensive monograph (224 pages, 110 figures with line drawings and colour photos) on the site and the object has been recently published in Slovene and English (Turk 1997). This book includes several chapters on the stratigraphy, dating and archaeological context of the object, the faunal assemblage and the taphonomy, a detailed description and interpretation of the bone flute with colour micrographs, results from replicative manufacturing, playing experiments, and comparative data from Upper Palaeolithic and younger flutes and pipes.

In spite of this extensive documentation there seems to be no full agreement among archaeologists (Wong 1997) about the nature and significance of this object. If this piece were to be accepted as the oldest musical instrument, manufactured and used by Neanderthals, this would have important implications for our understanding of the evolution of the human brain.

The publication of this piece takes place in the context of ongoing debates about the cognitive abilities of the Neanderthals and the explanatory value of the evolution versus revolution models for the origin of symbolic behaviours (d'Errico & Villa 1997). In the last few years, and in spite of robust opposition by the partisans of a symbolic explosion coinciding with the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition (Chase & Dibble 1987; 1992; Davidson & Noble 1989; White 1992; Stringer & Gamble 1993; Mellars 1989; 1996; Byers 1994), the proponents of a gradual acquisition of modern cognitive abilities (Marshack 1976; 1988; 1991; 1995; Simek 1992; Hayden 1993; Bednarik 1992; 1994; 1996; Bahn 1996) have succeeded in presenting viable challenges to the revolution model, still the dominant paradigm. These authors have generally based their argument on such evidence as collections of fossils and crystals, putatively perforated and engraved objects of stone and bone, use of ochre, and bone fragments interpreted as musical instruments.

Numerous perforated animal phalanges, often interpreted as whistles, have been reported from Middle Palaeolithic sites (e.g. La Quina, Combe Grenal, Bocksteinschmiede, Prolom II; Martin 1907-1910; Wetzel & Bosinski 1969; Stepanchuk 1993). Chase (1990), however, has convincingly shown, using actualistic data, that these perforations should be interpreted as carnivore punctures, a hypothesis previously put forward by Martin (1907-10) for the majority of perforated phalanges at La Quina. According to Martin, at least one reindeer phalanx, presenting two symmetrical perforations on the posterior and anterior faces, was human-made. Recent examination of this object by Taborin (1990) has shown that the edges of the perforations are sharp and angular, as in carnivore punctures, and carry no traces of human manufacture.

A long-bone shaft with a single perforation, found in the Middle Palaeolithic levels of Haua Fteah, Libya, was published as a broken whistle by McBurney (1969).

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