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The First Musical Instrument

The First Musical Instrument

The ancient archeological record is littered with tools and weapons, means of survival in the paleolithic world, but archaic humans also left behind evidence of their creative side. The Divje Babe flute is the oldest known musical instrument, dating to at least 50,000 years ago, and was likely constructed not by a Homo sapien but a Neanderthal. It was found in 1995 in a cave in what is now Slovenia and was fashioned from the femur of a cave bear. The short length of bone has five distinct holes drilled into it, and modern reconstructions of the instrument have demonstrated its range across three and a half octaves.

The Divje Babe flute’s status as a musical instrument was not initially accepted—it was instead suggested that the holes were the result of another predator attacking the bone’s cave bear. To test this hypothesis, dental casts of a cave bear, hyaena, and wolf were made and tested on 34 similar femurs to the one Divje Babe is made from. However, no set of teeth can account for the symmetry and uniformity in the flute, and any that come close would break their femurs in two. 

The flute being played by Dimkaroski. (Source: European Music Archeology Project)

To support the hole’s human origins, archaeologists Giuliano Bastiani and François Zoltán Horusitzky built a similar flute using Mousterian-era stone tools that would have been available at the time. They were able to do so without leaving distinct manufacturing marks on about half of their perforations, something the Divje Babe flute also lacks. But the flute’s true verification as an instrument came when it was played by academic musician Ljuben Dimkaroski, who oriented the piece in such a way as to be able to play complex music compositions. It has also been suggested the flute was used to replicate animal sounds during hunting.

The flute’s discovery had important implications for our understanding of Neanderthals, who were long thought to lack meaningful symbolic or creative thinking like Homo sapiens. The Divje Babe flute helped bolster the idea that these kinds of behavior extend further back into prehistory than previously thought. Today, the flute is housed at National Museum of Slovenia, but if Slovenia is a bit too far of a trek for you, you can listen to music played on a reconstruction of the flute right here.
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