Divje Babe flute

Divje Babe flute
Divje Babe flute
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Drawing of disputed flute by Bob Fink
Material Bone
Created Late Pleistocene (43100 ± 700 BP)
Discovered 1995 near Cerkno, Slovenia
Present location National Museum of Slovenia, Ljubljana

The Divje Babe flute is a cave bear femur pierced by spaced holes that was found at the Divje Babe archeological park located near Cerkno in northwestern Slovenia. It has been suggested that it is the world's oldest known musical instrument,[1] but this is in dispute.[2][3][4] The continuing dispute notwithstanding, the artifact remains on prominent public display as a flute in the National Museum of Slovenia (Narodni Muzej Slovenije) in Ljubljana. The museum's visitor leaflet maintains that manufacture by Neanderthals "is reliably proven".[5]



Divje Babe is the oldest known archaeological site in Slovenia. The site is the location of a horizontal cave, 45m long and up to 15 m wide. It is located 230m above the Idrijca river, near Cerkno, and is accessible to visitors. Researchers working at this site have uncovered more than 600 archaeological finds in at least ten levels, including 20 hearths,[6] the skeletal remains of cave bears, and have studied climate change during the pleistocene.[7] According to the museum, the alleged flute has been associated with the "end of the middle Pleistocene" and the time of Neanderthals, about 55,000 years ago.[5]

Neanderthal flute

In 1995, Ivan Turk found an approximately 43,100 year-old[8] [9] juvenile cave bear femur at the Divje Babe site, near a Mousterian hearth. Because it has characteristics of a flute, he has called it the "Neanderthal flute".[6] Whether it is actually a flute created by Neanderthals is a subject of debate. It is broken at both ends, and has two complete holes and what may be the incomplete remains of one hole on each end, meaning that the bone may have had four or more holes before being damaged. The bone fragment is the diaphysis of the left femur of a one to two year-old cave bear, and is 113.6 mm long. The maximum diameters of the two complete holes are 9.7 and 9.0 mm. The distance between the centers of the holes is 35 mm.[10]

Soon after its publication, the status of the object as a musical instrument came under scrutiny by taphonomist Francesco d'Errico (et al., 1998), Holderman and Serangeli (1999), and Chase and Nowell (1998, 552), all of whom suggest it is more likely to be the result of carnivore chewing than Neanderthal construction and claim that the bone has been damaged on all sides by the chewing of a carnivore.[11]

If the bone is a flute it would be evidence of the existence of music 43,000 years ago, and of the making of music by Neanderthals.[12][13] Thus Ivan Turk has asserted that whether the holes are of "artificial" (made by Neanderthals) or "natural" (punctures from a carnivore bite) origin is the "crucial question.",[6]

Divje Babe flute at National Museum of Slovenia

Despite the disagreement about the bone's markings, the bone has become a noted attraction in its Slovenian museum, publicized on official Slovenian websites[14] aired on TV with tunes played on a clay replica[15] and is a source of pride for the country. In the West, paintings were made, models constructed, and musicians such as Biology Professor and flautist Jelle Atema[16] have played them publicly.

The arguments for one or the other interpretation are based on the available taphonomic evidence derived from direct study of the artifact, as well as related studies of Neanderthal tools and of carnivores of the time period.

Hole shape

D'Errico et al. made an analysis of the artifact in comparison to cave-bear bone accumulations where no hominid presence was known.[2] They published photos of several bones with holes in them which had more or less circular holes similar to those found in the artifact. Their conclusion was that it was possible for these holes to have been made by animal, and that of the available options this was the most likely. In 2000, d'Errico analyzed the artifact firsthand, and would write that "the presence of two or possibly three perforations on the suggested flute cannot therefore be considered as evidence of human manufacture, as this is a common feature in the studied sample."[17]

Turk conducted laboratory experiments which pierced holes in fresh bear bones in the manner of carnivore punctures, and in every case, the bones split. Yet in the Divje Babe instance, the bone did not break, a fact not matching expectations of carnivore action, as Turk's results showed. Turk wrote, in his monograph and in his article in MIT's Origins of Music anthology, the bone shows no "counter-bites" that one would normally expect on the other side of the bone matching the immense pressure necessary for a bite to make the center holes.

Turk's 1997 monograph reported that the holes have similar diameters which would accommodate fingertips, and all are circular instead of oval (as carnivore bites often are). Furthermore, all are in the proper ratio of bore size to hole size found in most flutes, and the bone is the kind (femur) usually used for bone flutes.

An examination of the specimen using computed tomography was published in 2005 by Ivan Turk et al., in which he concluded that "the two partially preserved holes were formerly created before the damage...or before the indisputable intervention of a carnivore."

The National Museum of Slovenia argues that this evidence has "finally refuted hypotheses that the bone was perforated because of a bear bite". The manufacture by Neanderthals "is reliably proven" and its significance in the understanding of their capabilities and the development of music and speech is secure.[5]

Bone marrow

The issue of how much bone marrow remains in the artifact is important, because the making of flutes from bone usually includes removing the marrow.

Turk, et al. (in the monograph Moussterian Bone Flute, p. 160) wrote that "the marrow cavity is basically cleaned of spongiose. The colour of the marrow cavity does not differ from the colour of the external surface of the bone. So we may conclude that the marrow cavity was already open at the time.... Otherwise, it would be a darker colour than the surface of the bone, as we know from coloured marrow cavities of whole limb bones."

April Nowell stated in an interview that "at Turk's invitation, [Nowell] and Chase went to Slovenia last year... They came away even more skeptical that the bear bone had ever emitted music. For one thing, both ends had clearly been gnawed away by something, perhaps a wolf, seeking greasy marrow. The holes could have simply been perforated in the process by pointed canine or carnassial teeth, and their roundness could be due to natural damage after the bone was abandoned. The presence of marrow suggests that no one had bothered to hollow out the bone as if to create an end-blown flute. Says Nowell, '[Turk's] willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, whereas we're not.' "[18]

Hole spacing and alignment

There is no evidence that the two holes could have been bitten at the same time. The tooth spans were checked by all taphonomists concerned to see if any animals could bite two or more such holes at once. No match could be found to any known animals. If a match had been found, it could have been cited as prima facie evidence that the holes were animal-made. This was noted by Turk, et al., in his monograph, and noted from the opposing viewpoint by Nowell and Chase in their Current Anthroplogy article in the Aug-Oct 1998 issue. "Holes in the specimen", wrote Nowell, et al., "were almost certainly made sequentially rather than simultaneously and that the distance between them has nothing to do with the distance between any two teeth in a wolf's jaw."[19]

Turk (2005, 2006) points out that the features "common" between the artifact and other chewed bones studied by d'Errico (see hole shape above) do not include the line-up of the holes. In the d'Errico, et al. 1998 Antiquity article, none of the bones referred to or photographed by d'Errico et al., had the feature of 3 or more holes in a straight line.

Marcel Otte (director of the museum of Prehistoire, Universite de Liege, Belgium) pointed out in a Current Anthropology (April 2000) article, that there is a possible thumb-hole on the opposite side of the Divje Babe bone, which, making 5 holes, would perfectly fit a human hand.

In a November 2006 article, Iain Morley (holding the carnivore-origin viewpoint, and who endorsed almost all of d'Errico's findings quoted above) listed an additional observation: "Whilst the collections of cave bear bones examined by d'Errico et al. (1998), as well as those discussed by Turk et al. (2001), do show similar shaped and damaged holes...none of these occur in the diaphysis of a femur" (the thick part), as is found on the reputed flute (Morley 2006, 329).

Turk wrote in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology book The Origins of Music: "If this probability [of having lined-up holes looking like a flute] were greater (and of course it isn't) it is likely that there would have been more such finds, since...carnivores in cave dens were at least as active on bones, if not more so, than people in cave dwellings....".

Diatonic scale

Illustration of the diatonic flute by Bob Fink.

Bob Fink claimed in his essay[20] in 1997, that the bone's holes were "consistent with four notes of the diatonic scale" (do, re, mi, fa) based on the spacing of those four holes. The spacing of the holes on a modern diatonic flute (minor scale) are unique, and not evenly spaced. In essence, Fink said, they are like a simple fingerprint. The Divje Babe bone's holes matched those spacings very closely to a series of note-holes in a minor scale.

Nowell and Chase wrote in Studies In Music Archaeology III (presentations at a 2000 world conference on music archaeology), and saying in the media[18] as well, that the juvenile bear bone was too short to play those four holes in-tune to any diatonic series of tones and half-tones. (Fink had suggested there may have originally been a mouthpiece extension added to the bone before it was broken.)

[Nowell] along with archeologist Philip Chase, had serious doubts as soon as they saw photos of the bone on the Internet.... The Divje Babe bone bears some resemblance to the dozens of younger, uncontested bone flutes from European Upper Paleolithic [UP] sites. But, says Nowell, these obvious flutes are longer, have more holes, and exhibit telltale tool marks left from their manufacture. No such marks occur on the bear bone. Canadian musicologist Bob Fink proposed that the spacing of the flute's holes matches music's standard diatonic scale. ...Nowell and Chase teamed with a more musically inclined colleague to show that the bear bone would need to be twice its natural total length to conform to a diatonic scale.....[18]

In 2000, Fink produced an analysis of the probability that four randomly placed holes would appear in-line in a recognizable musical scale was on the order of a few in several million.[21]

In a 2011 article Matija Turk published the results of a collaboration with Ljuben Dimkaroski, an academic musician who had made replicas of the artefact. The authors argue that the instrument encompassed a range of two and a half octaves, which can be extended to three octaves by over­blowing.[22] Dimkaroski created over 30 wooden and bone replicas of the flute and experimented with them. The replicas were made from femurs of juvenile brown bears provided by Hunters Association of Slovenia, but also calf, goat, pig, roe and red deer bones. In the end he concentrated on playing a replica made on a femur of a juvenile cave bear from Divje babe I, to come as close as possible to the dimensions of the original.

See also


  1. ^ Turk, 1997[page needed]
  2. ^ a b d'Errico 1998
  3. ^ Holderman and Serangeli 1999
  4. ^ Chase and Nowell 1998, 2003
  5. ^ a b c The flute from Divje Babe, National Museum of Slovenia, 2005
  6. ^ a b c Turk, 2003
  7. ^ Yu 2001
  8. ^ Nelson, D.E., Radiocarbon dating of bone and charcoal from Divje babe I cave, cited by Morley, p. 47
  9. ^ Blackwell, Bonnie A. B. (2006). "Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) Dating in Karst Environments [Določanje starosti v krasu s pomočjo elektronske spinske resonance (ESR)]". Acta Carsologica (Ljubljana: SAZU, IZRK ZRC SAZU) 35 (2): 123–153. ISSN 0583-6050. http://carsologica.zrc-sazu.si/downloads/352/bonnie.pdf. 
  10. ^ Kunej and Turk, cited by Morley, p. 47
  11. ^ d'Errico, et al., 2003
  12. ^ Chase and Nowell, 2002–2003
  13. ^ "Neanderthal Man Moves Up the Evolutionary Scale" Times (London), April 5, 1997.
  14. ^ http://www.ukom.gov.si/en/media_relations/background_information/culture/neanderthal_flute/
  15. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sHy9FOblt7Y
  16. ^ http://sciencenetlinks.org/sci_update.cfm?DocID=37
  17. ^ Journal of World Pre-history pp. 36–39, Vol 17, #1, March 2003.
  18. ^ a b c Edgar 1998
  19. ^ Chase, Philip G.; Nowell, April (1998). "Taphonomy of a Suggested Middle Paleolithic Bone Flute from Slovenia". Current Anthropology 39 (4): 549–53. doi:10.1086/204771. 
  20. ^ "Early Music". Science 276 (5310): 203g–205. 1997. doi:10.1126/science.276.5310.203g. 
  21. ^ source, reproduced at here;[self-published source?] (Fink 2000)
  22. ^ Turk, Matija; Dimkaroski, Ljuben (2011). "Neandertalska piščal iz Divjih bab I: stara in nova spoznanja [Neanderthal flute from Divje babe I: old and new findings]". In Toškan, Borut. Drobci ledenodobnega okolja. Zbornik ob življenjskem jubileju Ivana Turka [Fragments of Ice Age environments. Proceedings in Honour of Ivan Turk's Jubilee]. Ljubljana: Založba ZRC, ZRC SAZU. pp. 251–65. ISBN 978-961-254-257-3. http://www.cpa.si/tidldibab.pdf. 


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