Today, the oldest musical instrument. The University
of Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
The question, "What's the
oldest musical instrument?" is one that chokes on its
own ambiguities. Should we count the cave man
drumming on a log? Should we count my dog,
rhythmically thumping her tail on the wall? Is that
The question isn't useful until we look for
sophisticated music-making machines. After all, birds
and whales were singing complex songs long before we
humans walked the earth.
As we move back in time we find 4000-year-old
cuneiform tablets that describe a diatonic scale. But
the written record soon runs out. The oldest
artifacts are a few one-note whistles made by the
mesolithic modern humans some 25,000 years ago.
In 1995, Slovenian archaeologist Ivan Turk made an
astonishing discovery. Turk found a four-inch length
of bone from the thigh of a cave bear -- pretty minor
except for two things: First, this bone is roughly
55,000 years old. That was before modern humans. He
found this bone among Neanderthal remains.
The real shock is what's been done to the bone. Two
holes, each a third of an inch in diameter, have been
reamed into it. On either end, the bone has been
broken where there were two more holes. We find that
four holes have been carefully cut into the bone, and
they're not evenly spaced. It can only mean one
This was a flute, and a sophisticated one at that.
Musicologist Bob Fink, from Saskatoon, studies the
scales these holes could've joined in producing.
Since he has only a fragment of the whole flute, he
has to juggle possibilities. However, the uneven
spacing means this flute was tuned in a scale with
whole steps and half steps. It was based on a scale
that fits natural harmonics, the way all diatonic
Fink measures hole spacings and juggles the
statistical probabilities of whole flute
arrangements. He concludes, with near certainty, that
this Neanderthal flute was tuned to either a
harmonic or a melodic minor scale -- a sound that's
Oriental to the Western ear -- or sad, or exotic -- a
beautiful and haunting sound.
Up to now, anthropologists have debated whether or
not the Neanderthals had speech. If they
did, their range of sounds was certainly less than
ours. But evidence has suggested that they buried
their dead, protected their handicapped, and honored
Now this! When William Congreve wrote that "Music has
charms to soothe the savage breast," he missed the
point. For where you have music you no longer have
The cartoon brutishness of the Neanderthal
was created by nineteenth-century racism.
Neanderthals had to be less than we because
they didn't look the same. We knew their brains were
at least as large as ours, but we swept that under
the rug. Now this bone flute -- and one more body
blow to the myth of modern humans' superiority.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Early Music. Editorial sidebar in Science,
Vol. 276, 11 April, 1997, pg. 205.
Fink, Bob, NEANDERTHAL FLUTE: Oldest Known Musical
Instrument Plays Notes of Do, Re, Mi, Scale.
Available on the internet at http://www.greenwych.ca/fl-compl.htm,
11 pages, illustrated. You may access his site by
clicking on the thumbnail of the bone fragment below,
I am grateful to Howard Pollack, UH Music Department,
for additional counsel on this episode.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.