Music of the Neaderthals

It’s the last place you’d expect to find a marine biologist from Wood’s Hole: deep in a painted cave in France, playing a stone-age bone flute by candlelight. As Jelle Atema told a packed conference room at AAAS on Sunday, it was the culmination of a fifteen-year odyssey and, for him, a magical experience.

The flute, believed to be the earliest musical instrument ever found, was discovered in 1996 among the remains in a Neanderthal cave site by Slovenian archaeologist Ivan Turk. Made from the thighbone of a cave bear, it was dated at 53,000 years old.

Scholars immediately began debating whether Neanderthal people carved holes in the bone to deliberately make a musical instrument or whether the holes were merely the result of a wolf’s piercing canine teeth.

When Atema traveled to the Slovenian Academy of Science and saw the fossilized cave-bear bone, with two nearly perfect round holes and two partial holes arranged precisely along one side, he knew at once that it was a flute and a fairly sophisticated one at that.

“To construct a tone-producing instrument like this,” says Atema, “you have to have a lot of insight and dexterity; it requires a much higher technology than just blowing across a pipe. If my reconstructed models are correct, we can now show that flutes dating back 50,000 years could be used to make music by Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal people.”

An accomplished musician, who studied with master flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, Atema’s day job is researching the chemical communication of lobsters. He’s even been known to fashion a flute of sorts from the empty claw after dinner – not an easy instrument to play, as he demonstrated during his talk. [Real Audio clip of lobster claw]

Atema started making his own flutes as a boy and his real passion is carving replicas of ancient flutes. He uses the same materials our musical ancestors did, including the bones of European deer, vultures, and extinct cave bears. The originals of these flutes date from 4000 to 50,000 years old.

After the American Museum of Natural History recorded Atema playing the Neanderthal flute in a cave in France, the biologist-musician was keen to make his own copy of the ancient instrument and he started scouring museums for fossil cave bear bones of the right dimension. He also had to figure out how to complete the instrument, which appeared to be broken off through the two partial air holes. A critical question was whether the ancient flute was once open at both ends, like a South American quana pipe, or closed at one end, like a recorder.

By carefully examining the original in the Slovenian Academy of Science, Atema concluded that the flute had been closed at one end. That made a musical instrument that was easier to play, but much harder to make. Atema claims that his model, if correct, shows that the Neanderthals possessed sophisticated knowledge and technology.

But a problem remained: Atema still had no cave bear bones. Finally, just days before the AAAS conference, an Austrian museum sent him a 50,000-year-old cave bear femur of just the right size. The night before his talk, Atema carved his flute, stoppered the end with a wine cork, and caught a plane to Boston just in time for the press conference.

When Atema pulled out his Neanderthal-designed flute and begin to play, the reporters at the conference were mesmerized. [Real Audio clip of prehistoric flute]

Did Neanderthals music sound like this? It’s impossible to know, Atema says, just as we can’t tell for what purpose the sounds were made. Perhaps it was used for courting a young woman, as funeral rites for a fallen clan member, or as a communication device between hunters in the forest.

Whatever the reason they played them, these flutes represent a tremendous technological advance, Atema says, and we are probably underestimating what other achievements these ancient human ancestors were capable of.

“There may have been a language barrier, but I doubt there was a musical barrier between Neanderthals and us,” say Atema. “If we were ever to meet, I think that if I pulled out my contemporary flute and they pulled out their cave-bear flute and we started making sounds together in a very short time we would have converged on a common musical language.”

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Dispatches From the Field
AAAS 2000 Annual Meeting