The oldest musical instrument in the world (60,000 years)
The oldest musical instrument in the world, a 60,000-year-old Neanderthal flute is a treasure of global significance. It was discovered in Divje babe cave near Cerkno and has been declared by experts to have been made by Neanderthals.
It is made from the left thighbone of a young cave bear and has four pierced holes. Musical experiments confirmed findings of archaeological research that the size and the position of the holes cannot be accidental – they were made with the intention of musical expression.
The flute from Divje babe is the only one that was definitely made by Neanderthals. It is about 20,000 years older than other known flutes, made by anatomically modern humans. This discovery confirms that the Neanderthals were, like us, fully developed spiritual beings capable of sophisticated artistic expression.
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
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.
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.
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.
- 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: [email protected], T: +386 (0)5 373 46 45