The Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1232:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1232.

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 instrumental music?

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 thing.

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 scales do.

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 some deity.

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 savages.

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 work.

(Theme music)

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, 11 pages, illustrated.

I am grateful to Howard Pollack, UH Music Department, for additional counsel on this episode.

Note Added, Sept. 23, 2016: Much controversy surrounded Robert Fink's (and its discoverer, Ivan Turk's) arguments that this bone fragment was really a flute, when this program first aired in 1997. Since then, this artifact, called the Divje Babe flute, has gained in plausibility a musical instrument. See the Wikipedia article about it.

The background flute and wind music were first added by Andrew Lienhard when I did a one-hour CD about the stone age. Click here for audio of the full section on "Oldest Technology and Oldest Flute".

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2016 by John H. Lienhard.