The oldest musical instrument is a flute and it was found in Slovenia.
Have you ever wondered how old music is? Some like to say it’s as old as humankind. While I can imagine early hominoids humming away a simple melody or keeping time stomping with their feet, the oldest currently known musical instrument was a flute.
Back in 1995, a group of Slovenian archaeologists were studying a cave called Divje babe (translated to wild broads), which used to be a den of cave bears, but was also inhabited by humans back in the early Stone Age. They found the remains of a hearth with some Neanderthal tools and a strange object, which turned out to be a flute made of a bear thighbone. The flute was dated to approximately 60.000 years ago, which makes it about 20.000 years older than any other discovered flutes and the world’s oldest musical instrument.
Since archaeologists tend to be very reluctant when it comes to stating facts (or hypotheses) about the past, they conducted numerous tests and analyses on the flute before they officially confirmed that it is indeed very likely a flute. They eliminated the possibility that the holes in the thighbone could’ve been accidental or made by animals and even reconstructed the way the holes were made using Stone Age tools – you can read more about that and see a photo of the flute here. One of their analysis revealed that the flute was adapted to a right-handed musician and since it is so old and was found near other artefacts from their time, it was attributed to the Neanderthals.
Neanderthals, or Homo neanderthalensis, were one of the more well-known past contemporaries of us modern humans, which lived during the glacial period (200.000 years ago) and were already remarkably advanced. They spread across Europe and Asia, buried their dead and possibly concieved of an afterlife, used rather fancy tools and technologies and were well adapted to the colder climate. Neanderthals are the epitome of what most people consider as cave men, although we still have a rather limited, prejudiced impression of them in terms of common knowledge (here is an interesting article about rethinking Neanderthals). Most of us certainly wouldn’t think that they were already capable of music and perhaps even conversation.
Today you can see the Neanderthal flute in the National museum of Slovenia in Ljubljana. It’s looks rather innocuous by itself, but the weight of its discovery is in the important realisation that Neanderthals were not only smart, but also possibly capable of rather complex artistic expression. Up until then, they were seen as primitive, somewhat capable hominids, but it turns out that they were a lot more like us than we think. As the flute shows, they were innovative, spiritually developed and sophisticated enough to not only enjoy music, but also to produce an instrument, which is more advanced than many other excavated Stone Age flutes. Naturally the researchers tried out a reconstruction of the flute and you can hear it in the video here.
Makes you think, doesn’t it? Considering our obsession with anthropocentrism and seeing us humans as the only advanced animal species capable of intelligence and culture, and even our internal racism, prejudice and ethnicism against each other, this should shake our beliefs quite a bit. If the flute was in fact made by Neanderthals, then here is proof of another advanced mammalian species potentially capable of the same intelligence and culture if it was left to evolve as long as we did, because they were in fact a different species, despite the Homo in their name. It is not exactly known how and why Neanderthals disappeared, but they were most likely replaced by and assimilated into Homo sapiens, the modern human species. Some of their genetic traits can still be seen in today’s humans, so we really ought to think better of them. If you want to know more about the flute and how they discovered it, you can also check out this official video.
Anyhow, this was a random short history post from my home country that I thought you might enjoy and benefit from. 🙂 Have you ever heard of the Neanderthal flute before?
P.S: This post was approved by an actual archaeologist, my boyfriend.