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Music for cavemen

Daniel Maurer / AP
Click for video: The University of Tubingen's Nicholas Conard holds an ancient
flute during a news conference. Click on the image for a video report on the find.

Scientists say they've found what they consider to be the earliest handcrafted musical instrument in a cave in southwest Germany, less than a yard away from the oldest-known carving of a human. The flute fragments as well as the ivory figurine of a "prehistoric Venus" date back more than 35,000 years, the researchers report.

The findings, published online today by the journal Nature, suggest not only that cavemen and cavewomen could rock the house, but that musical jam sessions may have helped modern humans prevail over their Neanderthal cousins.

"The bottom-line issues are demographics, but behind the demographics are other factors," said Nicholas Conard, an archaeologist at the University of Tubingen and the Nature paper's lead author.

Researchers know that modern humans prevailed over Neanderthals in Europe 20,000 to 35,000 years ago, and that the principal factors behind the Neanderthals' disappearance probably included culture and climate as well as diet. Conard and his colleagues - Maria Malina of the Heidelberg Academy of Science and Susanne Munzel of the University of Tubingen - argue that the musical tradition fostered by Homo sapiens may have contributed by bonding communities more closely together.

"Modern humans seemed to have had much larger social networks," Conard told me today. That networking may have helped facilitate "the demographic and territorial expansion of modern humans relative to culturally more conservative and demographically more isolated Neanderthal populations," he and his colleagues wrote.

The fact that multiple musical instruments turned up in the same area, not far from other artistic artifacts, strengthens the argument that Paleolithic humans developed a relatively rich culture, the researchers say.

Four flutes found
In all, researchers report finding the fragments of four flutes at two excavations in an area of southwestern Germany known as Swabia. Three of the sets of fragments were carved from mammoth ivory, but the real prize is a nearly complete flute hollowed out from the bone of a griffon vulture. That specimen was found in the Hohle Fels cave, just 28 inches (70 centimeters) away from the spot where the prehistoric Venus (or, as some wags have put it, "prehistoric porn") was found.

The figurine's discovery was announced in May, but both finds were actually made last September. "First came the Venus, and a couple of weeks later came the flutes," Conard said.

When assembled, the vulture-bone flute is about eight and a half inches long (21.8 centimeters long) and boasts five finger holes. There are fine lines cut into the bone around the holes, suggesting that the flute's maker was calibrating the holes' placement to produce the nicest tones. One end of the flute is cut into a V shape, and the musician probably blew into that side of the flute. The researchers assume that an inch or two of the flute's far end is missing. You can hear what the flute might have sounded like in this MP3 audio clip.

Conard noted that the fragments of eight flutes have now been found in Swabian geological deposits dating back 30,000 to 40,000 years - deposits known as the Aurignacian layer. Radiocarbon dating indicated that the newly found fragments fit into that time frame, and other dating methods led the researchers to conclude that the flutes were more than 35,000 years old.

They said there were no "convincing" claims that any older musical instruments have ever been discovered.

Reviewing the evidence
Actually, Slovenian archaeologist Ivan Turk and other researchers have pointed to a bear-bone fragment that is about 50,000 years old and appears to have the finger holes for a flute. I wrote about that particular specimen nine years ago in a story on the "sounds of science." But there's still a controversy over whether the holes were made by a Neanderthal or by a bone-chomping scavenger.

"No [outside] scholar who has ever studied it has ever confirmed it's a flute," Conard told me. Turk and his supporters have stood by their story, however.

This bear bone specimen was found in Slovenia in 1995. Is it a 50,000-year-old flute? Such claims have spawned controversy.

Conard said his team's conclusions about the flute found in the Hohle Fels cave are on much more solid ground. "It's a totally different situation here," he said. "We're dealing with finds that have all kinds of indications of cutting with tools and polishing."

The research also meshes with the story told by other finds like the prehistoric Venus. Taken together, the evidence points to a flowering of culture that took place around 35,000 B.C. Could it be that prehistoric partygoers brought their flutes as well as their figurines to the same cave rave?

"It's possible," Conard said. "Let's put it this way: If that were the case, you would find the situation that we have. On the other hand, we can't be sure how much time is represented by the [geological] layer. Let's say that your grandfather played the flute, and your great-granddaughter made the Venus. But it's got to be the same general time period."

Update for 4:30 p.m. ET June 25: I heard back via e-mail from a couple of other knowledgeable fans of ancient flutes. First, here's one of Conard's co-authors, Susanne Munzel, commenting on the Slovenian bear-bone flute (or non-flute):

"I have seen this 'flute' in Ljubljana earlier this year, and in my eyes it is not convincing. As an archaeozoologist I think this is carnivore chewing, which is quite normally found on juvenile cave bear bones. Certainly the bite marks are quite regular and look artificial, but the inside of the shaft is still covered with spongiosa. This makes a sound of the 'flute' impossible. Furthermore the shaft is not very long, and the first 'finger hole' is too close to the mouthpiece. We still don't know why art and music is only proved for Homo sapiens, since very nice Middle Paleolithic stones tell us that Neanderthals were no stupid people. Actually, these flutes and art objects are dated to 35,000 to 40.000 years BP [before present], a time in which in other parts of Europe Neanderthals were still around. So there is no contradiction in dating or the like."

And here's a message from Boston University's Jelle Atema, who made replicas of the bear-bone flute as well as other ancient flutes (and played them quite well, I must say):

"I find the evidence concerning this flute solid, but the inferences weak and misleading. I sense an all-too-common 'Cro-Magnon supremacy' issue here. And once published as a full article in Nature, even inferences become scientific fact. The questions surrounding the Slovenian Neanderthal flute are, in my opinion, throwing sand in the eyes.

"Unfortunately, my main job is as a marine biologist, and my full article is not published in Nature but in the British flute magazine Pan, besides the brief mention in the Science article following the AAAS meeting in 2000. I think it would be most productive at this point to organize a conference where all flute-finders exchange evidence. A real open forum."

Atema also addressed a couple of e-mailed questions I sent him. Here's an edited version of the Q&A:

Q: Is there any way to judge how such flutes might have been used?

A: The article provides no evidence for the way the Hohle Fels flute (carved from a vulture radius) may be played. The authors suggest that V-notches were carved for sound production and that fine lines across the bone surface may have been for measuring the proper distances between finger holes.

I have argued that one V-notch (not 2) could indicate either a quena-type or a broken fipple-type flute. I presented evidence from the deer bone flute for a fipple flute, i.e., what we now call a 'recorder.' The [Slovenian] Divje Babe flute could be either. Line carvings (and fine dot designs) are also found on the beautifully preserved 4,000-year-old vulture bone (here an ulna) which I replicated; these have nothing to do with finger holes. Moreover, I have argued that the player can easily bend the pitch so that precise finger distances are not necessarily of great importance. (This is highly controversial, but once you hear it you can believe it: Finger holes do not fix the pitch, they only suggest a pitch region.)

Finally, the idea that the Divje Babe flute is not a flute but actually a bone with two canine-pressed holes is highly unlikely. Most people agree that the broken third hole is a finger hole. Then there is the fourth 'hole' which may be a finger hole or - in my opinion - the blow hole or notch. And most biologists immediately recognize that scavengers of bone marrow crack the bone with their molars, which have the required leverage for bone crunching. Canines are for grasping, not cracking. (Just imagine how a carnivore would place its canines on a round bone and pierce two holes with its teeth! ... and then leave it alone.)
Q: The paper also touches upon the possible role flute-playing might have had in Paleolithic society, and how it might have given an edge to modern humans (in more connected communities) over Neanderthals (who were said to be in more isolated communities). From your perspective, what's the current thinking on the wider implications of Paleolithic music for modern human and Neanderthal society?

A: This to me is the same speculation people use to justify their cultural superiority all over the world. The problem for some people is to accept that Neanderthals may have been playing flute. Perhaps Cro-Magnon may have adopted originally Neanderthal instument making and music. There is no evidence in either direction. The only way to save the Cro-Magnon musical superiority is to question (and reject) the fact that Ivan Turk found a flute ... therefore the holes were made by cave bears! I believe his and my evidence are clearly favoring the human Neanderthal flute model. (Some would argue that Neanderthals were not even human. No problem; that's a question of definition. But we should be careful. Racial opinions have justified enslaving and eradicating people all over the world.) There is no evidence that Neanderthals, human or not, did not have a musical culture.
Q: Is there any way you can assess how this latest research fits into the current thinking on ancient music-making?

A: I believe that this is a case of scientific competition. Who has the oldest flute? Slovenia? France, Germany? The hard evidence presented here is wonderful but limited. Personally, I see a broad pattern of old musical culture all around the edges of the ice-age Alps. Any solid new piece of evidence is welcome. Maybe eventually we will have a picture of the musical origins. What's clear is that the current bone-flute-based evidence is somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 years old. The sophistication of the flutes suggests that the actual musical culture is much older, particularly if I am right in my fipple flute reconstructions.

Let me know when MSNBC is sponsoring this old bone flute convention.

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