Neanderthal Flute

206 points10
nologic016 minutes ago

There is this debate about why the music instinct was developed in humans at all, its role in developing social structures and the interplay with linguistic developmemt.

Such discoveries push further back the point where primate brains developed advanced musical capability: As it is less likely that Neanderthal and Homo Sapiens developed this independently, it was something they got from their common ancestor.

I wonder if the two branches of humanity ever jammed together in the forests of Europe. We share some DNA but otherwise the narrative is that it wasnt a harmonious coexistence.

crazygringo8 hours ago

Incredibly cool, and the video explains how they made a 3D scan of it in order to reconstruct a playable version with broken parts replaced.

Which seems like it would be the coolest thing ever to 3D print. I'd love to have this on my bookshelf.

Unfortunately, I can only find a primitive playable version that was recreated from an illustration [1], and the museum gift shop sells a 3D-printed version that is unrestored and therefore unplayable [2] -- though the museum shop page doesn't seem to load any content [3].

But 4:34 [4] in their video shows the detailed scanned version with restoration that is playable: "To this end, we made a 3D model of the replica in which Ljuben Dimkaroski added the missing pieces."

I wonder how I could get/print one of those...?

(I also wonder whether a 3D printed plastic one would sound any good... Another source [5] indicates the playable version is a clay replica.)






Tor345 minutes ago

For a flute it'll make minimal difference if it's plastic or clay. You can find endless discussions on this on flute- and whistle forums, but it all boils down to the fact that the sound is produced by a standing wave of air inside a tube, and not by any vibrations of the actual tube material (i.e. totally different from string instruments). (I own flutes and whistles made of plastic or other synthetic materials, various types of metal, and wood)

beezlewax3 hours ago

Ask them

bradleysmith5 hours ago

fantastic stuff. I'm fiddling with screenshots from your [4] link video to try to pull 3D model from multi-image 3d model build tools. I too would very much like a print of their playable reconstruction on my desk. Please update if you get to a usable STL.

100k9 hours ago

Amazing, hearing it played sends chills down my spine.

It's not as old, but in Wernor Herzog's documentary "Cave of Forgotten Dreams", an archeologist plays a 30,000 year old vulture bone flute. It even uses the pentatonic scale!

Some links about it:

ddol4 hours ago

The first link of Wulf Hein playing the Star-Spangled Banner on a 30,000 year old flute is incredible. To think that someone noodling on a flute could have produced that melody before dogs were domesticated is fascinating.

karaterobot9 hours ago

> This discovery confirms that the Neanderthals were, like us, fully developed spiritual beings capable of sophisticated artistic expression.

That feels a bit like an unsupported claim to me. It may be so, I am not saying Neanderthals weren't spiritual beings capable of sophisticated artistic expression. I am just wondering how you would confidently conclude that from the existence of (a thing which is probably) a flute.

In a slightly larger sense, it feels like a lot of claims about Neanderthals do this same thing: the presence of a specific artifact becomes not only evidence of technological sophistication, but proof of some deeper philosophical or spiritual consequence. I'm fascinated by early hominin, and try to follow this stuff as a lay person. So much interesting progress in such a short time. But, I'm not comfortable with the level of speculation I frequently see among communicators in this field, personally.

beezlebroxxxxxx8 hours ago

The connection between artistic expression and "spiritual beings" is also odd. What if they were just playing some songs around a fire? What if the flutes were for emulating bird songs? Maybe it was a kid's toy. The presence of artistic expression need not require some complex or even simplistic spiritualism, only a kind of basic aesthetics, a desire for creative expression.

mastazi8 hours ago

I get your point but

> Maybe it was a kid's toy.

We shouldn't be dismissive of kid's toys, I think they fully qualify as indicators of intelligence. Fish fry or newborn reptiles don't play flutes.

Tagbert7 hours ago

I think the objection is equating "intelligent" with "spiritual being". Those are not necessarily coincident.

mastazi7 hours ago

Yes, true, my bad. I have a history of not understanding what the word "spiritual" means (I think I've read every possible explanation over the years, I still don't get it), so I usually tend to find a proxy for it when I'm reasoning about something. In this case I was using "intelligent" as my proxy.

analog315 hours ago
Mistletoe6 hours ago
webnrrd2k2 hours ago

I'm certain that it was made by some 20-ish year old Jethro Tull-like neanderthal cranking out Aqalung, just trying to get with the ladies.

nomel8 hours ago

> I am just wondering how you would confidently conclude that from the existence of (a thing which is probably) a flute.

It’s not just the flute. It’s the burial rituals, the art, the tools, the anatomy, the crossbreeding, etc. See any introduction to the topic.

cubefox8 hours ago

So instead of "This discovery confirms" the author should have written "This discovery is one of many pieces of evidence for".

bdhcuidbebe7 hours ago

The find is relevant here, the text less so. Read about the find in another text if you dont like this writer.

masswerk2 hours ago

There is a (now rather dated) theory of an hierarchy of arts, where music, being the most abstract and at the same time the most intimate and sensual (AKA spiritual) one taking the crown. If you adhere to this idea to some degree, there may be no way around this kind of conclusion, short of abandoning said theory, since music is supposed to encompass the virtues of all the other arts.

ben_w32 minutes ago

This would imply wolves, dogs, whales and songbirds are all spiritual.

I don't know either way, and would be willing to accept either way, but that's the implication I see.

tptacek7 hours ago

It's an interesting question, right? Arguably, orcas also do musical expression.

mandmandam8 hours ago

Let's assume the thing is a flute. It's been reconstructed and plays beautifully. The odds of a hyena making such a thing with its teeth are in silly territory; and we have other similar flutes that are nearly as old (relatively speaking).

Given that, the fact that they use a scale so resonant with humans that it is still in very popular use sixty thousand years later - that's incredible. I felt the article drastically undersold the awesomeness of that, showing far too much restraint.

Have you seen the video where Bobby McFerrin leads a whole crowd to sync perfectly with each other, without rehearsal, thanks to the pentatonic scale [0]? That's spiritual stuff; it's 'sophisticated artistic expression'. That's the same scale that was (almost certainly) intentionally used to make this flute.

Here's a great comment from that video:

> What Bobby is doing here is transcendent. He gives an audience four notes of a five note scale, with no context, with no explanation, and the audience is intuitively able to grasp what the 5th note of the scale is. Not only that, the audience is able to intuitively understand the way the scale continues, above and below the range they were given. The fact that Bobby says this works with audience anywhere in the world speaks to a deep cross-cultural piece of the human experience and how we understand music and ourselves. Something is happening at the fundamental level here and I think it's lost on some people how truly profound this is.

Neanderthals intentionally crafted sophisticated flutes to play this precise scale 60,000 years ago? That's profound alright.

0 -

mastazi8 hours ago

> That's spiritual stuff;

It's also physics, those notes sound good next to each other because mathematically their frequencies are resonant (simple relationships like 3/2 or 5/4 as opposed to, say, 729/512 of a tritone).

I'm not saying that it's not awesome that this scale is still in use (it is) or that hearing that flute doesn't make me emotional (it does), just noting that there is a reason why.

mandmandam8 hours ago

That's true, and it's important.

Still, it seems very likely those Neanderthals 60k years ago were playing music for all the same reasons we do, even making efforts to understand the principles enough to make clever instruments.

Maybe the Neanderthals even knew about such ratios. It's discoverable by playing with string, or even plants.

WalterBright7 hours ago
MilStdJunkie4 hours ago

Oof. It's an important find (AKA the Divje Babe flute[1]), but it's very hard to stay tuned in when they utter the phrase "spiritual being". That's quite a thing to say. How do you measure spirits these days? With wheels, rods, or clocks?

So far as intelligent goes, the Neanderthals might have well been smarter than the first Sapiens to cross their path, but were disadvantaged by other factors, like a potentially ruinous birth rate, more restricted diet, and poorer (or more restricted) eyesight.

One interesting idea I've heard . . for a story . . imagine if sapiens spread HGT-style via a disease, that was transmitted by violence and rape. Like a bio-zombie, or the "Crossed" virus from "Crossed +100" (and which was invented by Garth Ennis, I guess). From the neanderthal perspective, it would have felt like Planet Zombie afterwards - and then they have to make their way among these terrifying new humanoids. The horror of the future. It would probably be more interesting moved to the present day, with a speciating change propagating via what looks like zombie bites, but which actually reflects the early stages of a new species, some weird more-fully-eusocial variant of homo adapted for extreme density.

[1] Which was really, really controversial in its day, and to some extent still is.

precompute52 minutes ago

Well... sure, but if you're really pushing the admixture hypothesis you'd necessarily need to assume that the species that lived in a more densely populated group was likely less individualistic. Add the Neanderthals' survival in sub-zero temps and you can easily claim that the Neanderthals weren't just "a little smarter" than the homo sapiens, they were likely doing 2 or 3 SDs on them, easily. Plus, them being acclimated to the cold would give them much better, not worse, eyesight, because they'd have to cross large distances and actually be able to make out things in the ice, and would also need good peripheral vision for protection from really bright light. "ruinous birth rate" doesn't really make sense... unless you compare the population of the neanderthals to that of the sapiens. By all accounts, the neanderthals lived in small groups, often not even over 30 individuals. They also likely had a very varied diet, or at least a very rich diet, because you can't be expected to be dumb and undernourished if you're eking out centuries in a cave because the weather outside is cold enough to freeze your bones.

As for the last paragraph... agreed. Even the most skillful warriors can be overtaken by a huge wave. Nothing to fight.

jaredhallen4 hours ago

I've had a similar theory for a long time, admittedly based on basically absolutely nothing. Looking back at history, say WWII, what would have happened if the Axis had won? History is written by the victors, as they say. I have to imagine that things would be perceived differently today, had that happened. Something along the lines of the Heroic Axis defeating the Evil Allies. Having observed the way Homo Sapiens often behave, I've long wondered if we were the Axis, and the Neanderthals the Allies, so to speak.

MilStdJunkie3 hours ago

Alternate History is a guilty pleasure of mine too! Except, it shouldn't really be called guilty, should it? Because those "alternates" give us insight into maybe - possibly - isolating crucial factors in human history. I'm not convinced there was any possible scenario where the Axis could win post December 1941, after the retreat from Moscow and the Americans entry.

Particularly the latter. I remain convinced that America was the deciding factor in the conflict, and this should not be surprising looking at the raw production numbers. Soviet production levels shocked Hitler into outright disbelief[1], but even those numbers - numbers literally extracted from the blood of the Soviet nation - were half of American peacetime productive capacity. That's not even counting resource production differential (oil, coal, steel, etc), where the USA had more capacity than the rest of the Allies combined - several times over.

Dulles and many others wished fervently for a mid-1945 pivot versus the Red Army, to meet them as far east as possible, "Allies" be damned (Stalin had never dealt with the Western allies in good faith, and honestly, Churchill didn't rush to shake hands either). It's hard to see how a March/April pivot could happen without an integration of the Wehrmacht into the Western Allies. How this would have gone down, it's probably not very pretty. We were already the number one employer of former Reich employees by that time, and going further would . . well, let's say that "A Night in the Garden" was a movie that got made for a reason. In some ways, the Reich's ideology was made more for America than it was for Germany, for a nation that still had yet a giant wild of "savages" to conquer and dehumanize.


mooreds10 hours ago

You can see the flute played here:

QuercusMax10 hours ago

This video is all about the flute music without all the interesting sciency stuff:

jasonwatkinspdx9 hours ago

Wow, that is a much more capable and versatile instrument than I expecting for something so simple. 2.5 octave range and a scale/tuning that sounds pleasant even to modern ears.

kbos875 hours ago

So interesting! I do have to say, the way they state some of the specifics as though they are settled facts is a little off putting, like -

"the size and the position of the holes cannot be accidental – they were made with the intention of musical expression."

Cannot? Were? I'm sorry, but there's no way to actually deduce that from the available information.

masfuerte9 hours ago

The Slovenian national museum has an English language leaflet describing the museum's top ten attractions. I particularly wanted to see the Neanderthal flute and an impressive silver torc. The torc (and a couple of other highlighted items) were missing. So before I left I asked about them. The staff did not give a fuck. It was a strange experience.

todd89 hours ago

A friend's wrote a book on prehistoric flutes. Her Ph.D. dissertation was on the subject, [1]. Unfortunately, I believe that it is out of print.

[1] Lana Neal, The Earliest Instrument: Ritual Power and Fertility Magic of the Flute in Upper Paleolithic Culture,

cubefox8 hours ago

I found this striking:

> The flute from Divje babe is the only one that was definitely made by Neanderthals. It is about 20,000 years older than other known flutes, made by anatomically modern humans.

Does this suggest that for some period of history, the Neanderthals were "technologically" ahead of Homo sapiens? At least in terms of flutes?

lifeisstillgood8 hours ago

Sir, we cannot allow a Flute Craft gap to develop.

I know this is astonishing, should be adjusting my world view on my own species ... but "no fighting in the WarRoom"

WalterBright7 hours ago

The age doesn't mean it was definitely made by Neandertals. It could have been acquired from other Homos.

Chris20486 hours ago

As I understand it, the ancient humanoid species had distinct ways of making tools, so maybe technique and tool mark would give away the maker?

ldjkfkdsjnv8 hours ago

Its not spoken about openly, but there is a decent correlation between % of DNA from neanderthals and IQ

cubefox8 hours ago

Do you have some reference? (I know that they had a larger brain. But if they were more intelligent, why did they go extinct?)

stephc_int137 hours ago

They are not really exctinct, they are part of our ancestry, at least in most of Europe and those who migrated from Europe. One possibility is that when Sapiens met Neanderthal they simply outnumbered them because they came from more fertile/hospitable lands. Like Google acquiring an older but smaller company.

BurningFrog8 hours ago

I'm 2.3% Neanderthal.

We're not extinct. We merged.

ldjkfkdsjnv8 hours ago

Another aspect, is theres no telling how much that 2.3% matters. Not all strands of DNA have the same effect on how someone turns out

davidmnoll7 hours ago
smolder5 hours ago

Off the top of my head, disease, in-fighting, or some other missing adaptation that made them less able to flourish and reproduce in as-high numbers.

nobodyandproud7 hours ago

Over specialization perhaps. High calorie diet and starvation? Harder to cope in a warming environment?

paulpauper7 hours ago

larger brain does not always mean smarter.

precompute50 minutes ago

For humans, bigger is almost always better.

nomel6 hours ago

I believe that all evidence points says that it helps.

bdhcuidbebe7 hours ago

hard to argue “more technical”, but at a similar level. they weaved clothes, spoke language, built dwelllings, made art and interbred with us. they are part of us to this day.

dkga8 hours ago

I cannot describe how I feel hearing the sounds and tunes coming out of that flute. To know I am experiencing music with that particular timbre fills my soul with awe that we have this link to the past.

And the affirmation that it is sufficient to play most classical music pieces means that its range includes the diatonic scale. Similarly amazing (in the literal sense) is that other wind instrument techniques are possible. I don’t know if I am overhearing things but I noted the musician what harmonica folks call “bending”.

dghughes7 hours ago

Ancient peoples would have sucked the marrow out of bones. I can imagine someone doing so and there is a crack or hole in the center of the bone they are holding. As they suck out the last remaining marrow and try to get more but all they do is pull air through the hole. A noise is heard and they realize they can make a sound.

dhosek10 hours ago

The thing that’s impressive to me is that it has the holes for controlling pitch. The reconstruction offers some guesses at the temperament, but I imagine there’s a lot of room for error. Presumably there are other instruments even older (it’s likely that the very first instruments would be percussion instruments which, even should they survive, would be difficult to identify as musical instruments tens of thousands of years later.

QuercusMax10 hours ago

The first percussion instruments were almost certainly either rocks or sticks banged together. The sticks were presumably used just like claves (

gabrielsroka9 hours ago

> Probably the earliest flyswatters were nothing more than some sort of striking surface attached to the end of a long stick.

bdhcuidbebe7 hours ago

In Africa there are several giant boulders that when stroken plays a certain tune. While undateable, they show markings from a very long time of use.

dheera9 hours ago

> lot of room for error

I mean, when you have all day and nothing to do sitting around in your cave, you can make a lot of flutes and hopefully one will be error-free.

dhosek7 hours ago

I was thinking not about the original flute, but the recreation of it from a fragmentary artifact.

dorfsmay7 hours ago

Does this fuel the debate on Neanderthal being able to speak?

Could a people unable to speak be able to develop such an instrument with the right distances between holes etc..? That would mean a single individual not able to gain from previous generations' knowledge.

precompute49 minutes ago

Neanderthals lived in small groups in sub-zero temps. They had to co-ordinate or they'd die. So I'd say, yeah, they could indeed speak and communicate in complex manners, much like us, or maybe even better.

smolder5 hours ago

Orcas have been teaching each other to sink boats, from what I was reading. They don't speak, but they do communicate.

bdhcuidbebe7 hours ago

> That would mean a single individual not able to gain from previous generations' knowledge.

Surely not. Skills can be passed on by imitation and observation.

That being said, I’m certain they had language too.

Sign language, whistles and probably spoken language too since they probably co-develop.

piwi9 hours ago

Some people think it is a hyena who punctured the bone, and that it is not from neanderthal.

Search Divje Babe in

It is amazing to see how much work is spent collecting pieces of evidence.

mandmandam9 hours ago

That might seem plausible after reading just this article, but if you look at this video [0] you can see the way it was reconstructed, and hear it being played.

It strikes me as unnecessarily dismissive to insist that hyenas gnawed a perfect pentatonic flute; that really does just seem like some kind of weird jealousy... Especially when we have other examples of pentatonic bone flutes tens of thousands of years old.

0 -

crazygringo7 hours ago

It's not dismissive or jealousy at all -- it's wanting it to make sure this is based on actual evidence rather than wishful thinking, because that's how science works.

And when you see the image of the partial flute, it is entirely non-obvious that it's a musical instrument. It's a small piece of bone broken on both ends with two holes in it, and a hint of a third hole. There are lots of natural objects that look man-made but aren't, and canine species absolutely can produce similar-looking tooth puncture holes in the middle of bones. And when that happens enough, it's not hard to imagine 3 holes that could be used musically just through coincidence.

So it really does require a lot of analysis to show that this is actually a man-made instrument, and it's important to do that rather than just make unwarranted assumptions.

Tao33006 hours ago

Whatever the doubtful counterpart to wishful thinking is, a great example would be conjuring up the perfect hyena to make the perfect bite without otherwise crushing the bone.

"Withering skepticism" maybe?

crazygringo6 hours ago
asdff10 hours ago

One would think a blade of grass would be even older than the flute. Kids sometimes pick up grass whistling intuitively but its also something that is culturally passed down over the years at the playground, and might be quite old.

jacurtis9 hours ago

After watching the video, it seems that they are distinguishing it by the fact that it was a man-made object created for the specific purpose of producing music. This of course still allows for other pre-existing natural objects to be used for music playing.

For example, I assume prior to creating a flute, human ancestors likely batted rocks together or beat rocks against hollow logs to create a beat or variants of music.

But the significance of this finding is that it was purpose-made for creating music, which is interesting since it hints at the cultural impact that music may have played 60,000+ years ago.

rpastuszak9 hours ago

That reminds me, tangentially, of The Song of the Reed, by Rumi.

(think of the 3 meanings of reed: an instrument turning human breath (life) into music, a writing tool (qalam), and of course a living creature itself)

ilyt9 hours ago

Or just hitting something with a stick to drum

d--b7 hours ago

The level of certainty that is conveyed by the article is staggering…

Whatever they say we can’t know for sure that this was made to be blown into, and if it was made to be blown into, we definitely can’t say it was made to make music.

Just a little “scientists believe” and “neanderthals may” here and there would make this a lot more palatable.

fugalfervor4 hours ago

do some research on the pentatonic scale. it's an intelligent abstraction encoded in the placement of holes on this object.

if one were to randomly put four holes in a bone of the same size, the chances that they would produce a pentatonic scale are pretty rare.

if this were found in a human settlement, no one would bat an eye: the pentatonic scale has appeared in almost every human culture.

with that in mind, this object is far more likely to have been created by an intelligent being than to have been composed of random punctures.

ChrisMarshallNY7 hours ago

That’s a cool story.

I find this passage interesting:

> fully developed spiritual beings

chompychop9 hours ago

How do they definitively know it was used as a musical instrument? It could just have been something punched out on the bone just for fun, by the Neanderthal. Sure, you can make music out of it, but that's not scientific evidence to conclude that someone did use it to make music, is it?

casenmgreen6 hours ago

Site blocks Tor.

minroot8 hours ago

Holy shit!

xkcd19639 hours ago

"fully developed spiritual beings capable of sophisticated artistic expression" confused shrugging

aaron6959 hours ago


ekianjo7 hours ago


Tao33007 hours ago

It's the oldest in the world. Prove me wrong.

ekianjo7 hours ago

It's the oldest one KNOWN in the world. Until we find an older one. You know, just because you found something now, does not exclude you will find anything else in the future.

Tao33007 hours ago

It's obvious though. Should they also note who it is that knows it to be the oldest, along with when and where they knew this? Just in case?

Did you get burned on an exam over this or something? It's silly to be so exact about this.

silisili7 hours ago

I get the point, but it's a bit pedantic. We don't preface every superlative with 'that we know of.' It's kinda implied.