Neanderthal Flute

Glenn Morton (
Tue, 07 Apr 1998 15:13:59 -0500

Before anyone else posts on this, I think I will. There is a report in
Science News April 4, 1998 p. 215 reporting a study April Nowell and Philip
G. Chase which expresses doubt that the Neanderthal flute reported widely
in the media last year was a flute. The original internet report can be
found at

I too made note of this flute and got into a discussion with Hugh Ross on
whether it was a flute, as was believed by the discoverer, or a fire
starter/hammer, as Hugh claimed(Ross, 1996, p. 11; Ross, 1997, p. 6-7).
Because I made a public claim about this object, and now there is some
report saying that the flute is nothing, I feel obliged by intellectual
honesty to call everyone's attention to the counter-evidence. But then I
also get to make a few comments about the flute again.

The authors say that the bone chewed on and suggest that the holes were
punched into the bones by canines and then rounded by normal erosion and
wear. The original discoverer, Ivan Turk, maintains his claim that this was
a flute.

The major item which supports the new claims include evidence of gnawing on
the ends of the flute. The logic is that if the bone was not fresh, the
animals would not have gnawed on it. However, I once owned a puny little
dog and he used to gnaw on old bones in which there was little in the way of
nutrients other than calcium. So I find the evidence of gnawing less than
devastaing, especially if it requires that no canid gnaw old bones as my
puny little dog used to do.

The items that makes me think Ivan Turk is correct is that the 2 complete
and 2 partial holes are aligned quite remarkably, all on the same side of
the bone. While I could see that an animal might puncture a bone, to have
the punctures aligned with the correct musical spacing as is outlined at

seems remarkable. I would expect many more pseudo flutes to be reported in
the literature if animals were leaving circular puncture marks on bones and
that these objects would have holes that never quite aligned. But as it is,
objects with round and closely aligned holes are quite rare, there being
around 30 of them in the archeological record and the majority of them are
also broken as is the one from Slovenia.(Bahn and Vertut, p. 68-69) This
rarity seems to me to argue against them being produced via carnivore
activity because with the great number of carnivores over the millennia,
they should have left a greater horde of punched bones.

Secondly, the flute looks exactly like other objects which are universally
acclaimed as being bone flutes. There is a bone flute found at Isturitz in
France, (Passemard, 1944, plate VII) This particular flute has two holes a
broken third hole similar to what is found on the Neanderthal flute. Other
near identical flutes made by modern man and accepted as such can be seen in
Megaw, (1960)

Thirdly, even if this flute does not survive the test of time, there is
still the much older flute found at Haua Fteah, Lybia which serves the same
purpose of moving mankind's spirituality further back than the 60,000 years
that many apologists want.

McBurney notes:

"To these may be added a remarkable bone object most plausibly explained as a
fragment of a vertical 'flute' or multiple pitch whistle, from spit 1955/64.
In this position although directly associated only with a few non-diagnostic
chips, splinters and and splinters of bone it is none the less attributable to
the Pre-Aurignacian owing to the clear indications provided by the overlying
spits 1955/61-58, to be discussed in the next chapter. These last show every
affinity with the material culture as described and certainly indicate the
continued existence of the tradition in the area.
"In all important respects preserved the bone tube reproduces the
features of known paleolithic flutes from the European Gravettian both in the
East and West, although older by a factor of at least 2 than any other
specimen known.
"Its measurable features are as follows:
Length of surviving portion 8.9
External diameter 3.5-4
Internal diameter 3.5
Diameter of right-hand perforation 3.4
Estimated diameter of left-hand perforation 3
Distance from supposed outh piece to first perforation 8
(proximal rim)
Distance from supposed mouth piece to second perforation 17.5"
(McBurney 1967, p. 90)

This layer dates to more than 70,000 years. (Isaac 1972)

Finally, flutes were not the only instruments which extend way back into the
past. Neanderthals were prolific in making phalange-bone whistles. In fact
the probable phalange-bone whistle capital of the ancient world 90,000 years
ago was Prolom II. In this quotation from Stpanchuk note the suggestion that
carnivores made the whistle holes.

"It is impossible not to notice abundant Saiga tatarica phalanges with
holes. For example, there are 41 such phalanges with holes. For example,
there are 41 such phalanges (55.4% of the total) in the second layer
(excavations of 1981 and 1982). In most cases crudely pierced holes are
connected with the dorsal surface near the distal epiphysis of the first and
second phalange, but are also often located on the articular surface. In many
cases the phalanges have two or even three holes, mainly tending to the distal
or proximal ends. It is rare that a hole is situated in the medial section.
Average dimensions of holes are 3-4 mm; whereas larger ones, sometimes up to
10 mm in size, are much rarer. The origin and purpose of these holes is not
quite clear. The study of phalanges with holes has already been going on for
more than 150 years, and various explanations have been proposed: the
obtaining of marrow; use as whistles; and the result of biting through by a
carnivore while the animal was alive. Other hypotheses seem to be fantastic,
for example, that they were vessels for poison. It is possible that some of
the phalanges with holes were really used as whistles. R. Wetzel wrote that
phalanges with roughly pierced holes from Bocksteinschmeide H which he had
recognised as 'hunters' pipes' were shown by experiment to utter quite strong
shrill sounds. One cannot completely exclude the hypothesis about marrow
procuring, although in many ways it does not withstand criticism. New evidence
about natural causes has recently been adduced. In any case, the abundance of
phalanges with holes at Prolom II cannot be comprehensively explained by any
one of the causes mentioned above. Maybe in future investigations of these
artefacts at Crimean sites (apart from Prolom II they are known in any layers
of Zaskalnaya V, VI IX, as well as at Prolom I, and elsewhere) will make clear
their enigmatic origins." (Stpanchuk, 1993, p. 33-34)

To conclude, I still think there is good evidence that this is a flute, but
as soon as I can see the original report, I will obviously re-evaluate my
position if necessary. One thing that would make me alter my position is if
there are tooth-type striations within the holes themselves, but the Science
News report indicates that this is not the case. The other thing that is
leading me to caution is that almost any kind of cultural activity not
associated with Homo sapiens, receives a much more critical examination than
that which is clearly in a modern human context. Given this penchant,
nearly everything which would indicate intelligence and spirituality among
the archaic hominids has some doubters. And while there should always be
doubt, in my opinion the abundance of evidence for musical instrumentation
among the Neanderthals is sufficient to survive even the fall of the flute.
But then, the other data also lends some credence to the flutes reality.


Bahn, Paul G. and Jean Vertut, Images in the Ice, (Leichester: Windward,
1988), p. 68-69

Isaac, Glynn ,"Chronology and the Tempo of Cultural Change during the
Pleistocene." in Calibration of Hominid Evolution, ed. W.W. biship and J.
Miller, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic press (1972), p. 381-430 reprinted in
Barbara Isaac, editor, The Archaeology of Human Origins, (Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 71

McBurney, C. B. M., Haua Fteah (Cyrenaica),(Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1967), p. 90

Megaw, J. V. S., 1960. "Penny Whistles and Prehistory, Antiquity 34(1960):6-13

Passemard, Emmanuel, 1944, "La Caverne D'Isturitz en Pays Basque,"
Prehistoire (Presses Universitaires de France tome IX) plate VII

Ross, Hugh, 1996, "The Meaning of Music and Art", Facts & Faith, 10:4, 4th
qtr. 1996, p. 11.

Ross, Hugh, 1997 "Response to Glenn Morton's Critique,' Facts & Faith,
11(1997), p. 6-7.

Stpanchuk, Vadim N. 1993, "Prolom II, A Middle
Palaeolithic Cave Site in the Eastern Crimea with Non-Utilitarian Bone
Artefacts," Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 59, 1993, pp 17-37


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