Object: Neanderthal flute – the flute from Divje babe

Description: The oldest flute in the world. It is pierced by two well-preserved and two damaged holes. The flute from Divje babe is the oldest of Palaeolithic flutes known to the present throughout the world and at the same time the first reliably proven to be made by a Neanderthal. As far as we now know, Neanderthals were the first among the closest human relatives that made musical instruments. The flute from Divje babe testifies to the fact that Neanderthals were capable of such an abstract and uniquely human activity as creating music.

Dating: 60,000 years before present

Material: Bone of a cave bear 

Length: 11.4 cm

Site: Divje babe cave near Cerkno, Slovenia 

Inv. No: D. b. 652

On display: Permanent exhibition The Earliest Stories from the Crossroads at the National Museum of Slovenia

See a short documentary on the Neanderthal flute

More information

Photo: Gregor Kacin

Where does it come from?

The bone flute was discovered in 1995 in the cave of Divje babe near Cerkno during systematic excavations led by Ivan Turk. The cave lies below the north-eastern edge of the Šebrelje plateau, 230 meters above the Idrijca River. The cave in which it was found was a den of cave bears, but in the last glacial period it was occasionally also visited by people, initially Neanderthals and afterwards anatomically modern humans. The flute was found close to a hearth, in a layer deposited about 60 to 50 millennia ago.

The age of the flute

Based on the dating of the layer in which the flute was discovered, it is about 60,000-50,000 years old and belongs to the Old Stone Age (the Palaeolithic). In the layer with the flute, the archaeologists also discovered Neanderthals’ stone tools. The age of the layer in which the flute was discovered was recently established on the basis of electron spin resonance used on bear teeth. The flute from Divje babe is about 20,000 years older than other known flutes, made by anatomically modern humans. 

Who made it?

The flute is for the time being unique, not merely in Europe but also throughout the rest of the world: a Neanderthal individual made it.

Neanderthals

About 200,000 years ago, Homo sapiens neanderthalensis developed in Europe and later expanded all the way to West Asia and Middle East. They were named after the site Neanderthal in Germany where fossil remains were first recognized in 1856. They lived in the glacial period and were physically adapted to harsh and cold climates. They became extinct about 40,000 years ago, the reason for which is the subject of numerous theories.

A pointed stone tool from flint

A bone punch

How did the Neanderthals make the flute?

It is made from the thighbone of a young cave bear and has four pierced holes, two of which are entirely preserved and two partly.

With practical experiments with the replicas of the tools, discovered in the cave, archaeologists explained how the Neanderthals made the holes in the flute: with a pointed stone tool, a small hollow was carved in the bone, and it was pierced with a bone punch. The result was a hole.

Various analyses and experiments proved the impossibility of the holes being attributed to animal bites or a coincidence.

Why is the find so important?

The Neanderthal flute from Divje babe is the oldest known musical instrument in the world and to this day the best evidence for the existence of music in Neanderthals. Indeed, other known Palaeolithic flutes were made by anatomically modern humans.

The flute from Divje babe is of exceptional importance in understanding the cultural and, indirectly, the biological development of our ancestors. The find radically undermines until recently inveterate conceptions of Neanderthals as primitive hominids. It testifies to the fact that the Neanderthals were innovative and sensitive people capable of artistic expression.

Gallery

Curiosities

The shape of the selected thighbone, its preserved length, a mouthpiece (deliberately sharpened edge at the top), and the results of CT scans allowed an accurate and authentic reconstruction of the instrument which allows a wide range of sonority in melodic movement. In terms of musical performance, the instrument is superior to the other reconstructed Palaeolithic musical instruments, and it is ergonomically adapted to a right-handed musician. 

You can enjoy the melodies masterly played by the academic musician Ljuben Dimkaroski on the reconstruction of the Neanderthal flute (called tidldibab) also at home. Buy the CD A Sound from the Past in the museum store.

Further reading

  • Ivan Turk: Divje Babe I. Paleolitsko najdišče mlajšega pleistocena v Sloveniji (2. del: Arheologija) / Upper Pleistocene Palaeolithic site in Slovenia (Part 2: Archaeology). Opera Instituti Archaeologici Sloveniae 29, Ljubljana 2014.
  • Ivan Turk: Divje Babe I. Paleolitsko najdišče mlajšega pleistocena v Sloveniji (1. del: Geologija in paleontologija) / Upper Pleistocene palaeolithic site in Slovenia (Part 1: Geology and Palaeontology). Opera Instituti Archaeologici Sloveniae 13, Ljubljana 2007.
  • Ljuben Dimkaroski: Glasbena raziskovanja najdbe iz Divjih bab I. Neandertalčeva piščal: od domnevne piščali do sodobnega glasbila. Argo 53/2, 2010, str. 10–17. (Text in Slovene, summary in English; pdf, 909 KB)

On display in the Permanent Exhibition

Guided tours to the Archaeological Park Divje Babe

Info & reservations: LTO Laufar Cerkno

Močnikova ulica 2, 5282 Cerkno, Slovenia

E: info@visitcerkno.si, T: +386 (0)5 373 46 45

In the research of the first instrumental sounds of humanity, a significant role is played in the Slovenian territory by the Neanderthal flute in the creation of the story of the oldest known musical instruments in Europe and the world.

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