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1 October 2021, 17:01
It’s carved from the bone of a cave bear – and it sounds hauntingly beautiful.
Archaeologists have found a pre-historic instrument carved from cave bear bones, and it can still be played today.
The Neanderthal Flute, found in the cave of Divje Babe in Slovenia, is thought to date back at least 50,000 years, making it the oldest known musical instrument in the world.
It was discovered by archaeologists in a cave near the Idrijca River in 1995. Ivan Turk, who led the excavation, discovered the ‘bone flute’ laid beside a hearth once used by Neanderthals.
While only a fragment remains intact, the ancient instrument can teach us a lot about how Homo sapiens, or our now extinct cousins Homo neanderthalensis, once made music.
In the video above, Slovenian musician Ljuben Dimkaroski plays Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor on a clay replica of the flute, made by the Slovenian National Museum. Despite dating back thousands of millennia, the instrument does a remarkably good job of playing music that follows our modern use of the musical scale.
In 2015, Musicologist Bob Fink explained that the flute has four finger holes with four different pitches. These pitches match four notes of the traditional scale we use in music today, the diatonic scale.
Fink added that the notes of the flute “are inescapably diatonic and will sound like a near-perfect fit within ANY kind of standard diatonic scale, modern or antique.”
This 3D-image of the flute (see below) gives a clearer picture of its origins – a cave bear’s femur bone – and what remains of the instrument today.
Long after word of this ancient instrument had spread, a study dismissed the artefact as nothing more than a bone that had been chewed on by hyenas – a view some scientists still share. But after hearing the Albinoni played on it so tunefully, it’s rather hard to believe...
The flute’s forever-home is now The Slovenia National Museum, where its official description reads:
“The oldest flute in the world. It is pierced by two well-preserved and three damaged holes. The flute from Divje babe is the oldest of Palaeolithic flutes known to the present throughout the world and at the same time the first reliably proven to be made by a Neanderthal.
“As far as we now know, Neanderthals were the first among the closest human relatives that made musical instruments.
“The flute from Divje babe testifies to the fact that Neanderthals were capable of such an abstract and uniquely human activity as creating music.”