Is this bone a Neanderthal flute?

Cave Bear femur fragment from Slovenia, 43+kya


Science News 153 (April 4, 1998): 215.
By B. Bower

Amid much media fanfare, a research team in 1996 trumpeted an ancient, hollowed out bear bone pierced on one side with four complete or partial holes as the earliest known musical instrument. The perforated bone, found in an Eastern European cave, represents a flute made and played by Neandertals at least 43,000 ye us ago, the scientists contended.

Now it's time to stop the music, say two archaeologists who examined the purported flute last spring. On closer inspection, the bone appears to have been punctured and gnawed by the teeth of an animal -- perhaps a wolf -- as it stripped the limb of meat and marrow report, April Nowell and Philip G. Chase, both of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.   "The bone was heavily chewed by one or more carnivores, creating holes that became more rounded due to natural processes after burial," Nowell says. "It provides very weak evidence for the origins of [Stone Age] music." Nowell presented the new analysis at the annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society in Seattle last week.

Nowell and Chase examined the bone with the permission of its discoverer, Ivan Turk of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences in Ljubljana (S.N.: 11/23/96, p. 328). Turk knows of their conclusion but still views the specimen as a flute.

Both open ends of the thighbone contain clear signs of gnawing by carnivores, Nowell asserts. Wolves and other animals typically bite off nutrient-rich tissue at the ends of limb bones and extract available marrow. If Neandertals had hollowed out the bone and fashioned holes in it, animals would not have bothered to gnaw it, she says.

Complete and partial holes on the bone's shaft were also made by carnivores, says Nowell. Carnivores typically break open bones with their scissor like cheek teeth. Uneven bone thickness and signs of wear along the borders of the holes, products of extended burial in the soil, indicate that openings made by cheek teeth were at first less rounded and slightly smaller, the researchers hold.

Moreover, the simultaneous pressure of an upper and lower tooth produced a set of opposing holes, one partial and one complete, they maintain.

Prehistoric, carnivore-chewed bear bones in two Spanish caves display circular punctures aligned in much the same way as those on the Slovenian find. In the March Antiquity, Francesco d'Errico of the Institute of Quaternary Prehistory and Geology in Talence, France, and his colleagues describe the Spanish bones.

In a different twist, Bob Fink, an independent musicologist in Canada, has reported on the Internet
( that the spacing of the two complete and two partial holes on the back of the Slovenian bone conforms to musical notes on the diatonic (do, re, mi. . .) scale.

The bone is too short to incorporate the diatonic scale's seven notes, counter Nowell and Chase. Working with Pennsylvania musicologist Robert Judd, they estimate that the find's 5.7-inch length is less than half that needed to cover the diatonic spectrum.   The recent meeting presentation is "a most convincing analysis," comments J. Desmond Clark of the University of California, Berkeley, although it's possible that Neandertals blew single notes through carnivore-chewed holes in the bone.

"We can't exclude that possibility," Nowell responds. "But it's a big leap of faith to conclude that this was an intentionally constructed flute."


(See an update of this discussion on Bob Fink's web site, November 2000)

The doubts raised by Nowell and Chase (April 4th, DOUBTS AIRED OVER NEANDERTHAL BONE 'FLUTE') saying the Neanderthal Bone is not a flute have these weaknesses:

The alignment of the holes -- all in a row, and all of equivalent diameter, appear to be contrary to most teeth marks, unless some holes were made independently by several animals. The latter case boggles the odds for the holes ending up being in line. It also would be strange that animals homed in on this one bone in a cave full of bones, where no reports of similarly chewed bones have been made.

This claim is harder to believe when it is calculated that chances for holes to be arranged, by chance, in a pattern that matches the spacings of 4 notes of a diatonic flute, are only one in hundreds to occur .
The analysis I made on the Internet ( regarding the bone being capable of matching 4 notes of the do, re, mi (diatonic)  scale included the possibility that the bone was extended with another bone "mouthpiece" sufficiently long to make the notes sound fairly in tune. While Nowell says "it's a big leap of faith to conclude that this was an intentionally constructed flute," it's a bigger leap of faith to accept the immense coincidence that animals blindly created a hole-spacing pattern with holes all in line (in what clearly looks like so many other known bone flutes which are made to play notes in a step-wise scale) and blindly create a pattern that also could play a known acoustic scale if the bone was extended. That's too much coincidence for me to accept. It is more likely that it is an intentionally made flute, although admittedly with only the barest of clues regarding its original condition.

The 5.7 inch figure your article quoted appears erroneous, as the centimeter scale provided by its discoverer, Ivan Turk, indicates the artifact is about 4.3 inches long. However, the unbroken femur would originally have been about 8.5 inches, and the possibility of an additional hole or two exists, to complete a full scale, perhaps aided by the possible thumbhole. However, the full diatonic spectrum is not required as indicated by Nowell and Chase: It could also have been a simpler (but still diatonic) 4 or 5 note scale. Such short-scale flutes are plentiful in homo sapiens history.

Finally, a worn-out or broken flute bone can serve as a scoop for manipulation of food, explaining why animals might chew on its ends later. It is also well-known that dogs chase and maul even sticks, despite their non-nutritional nature. What appears "weak" is not the case for a flute, but the case against it by Nowell and Chase.

Bob Fink

Letter to the Editor: Antiquity Journal:
"A Bone to Pick"
By Bob Fink

I have a bone to pick with Francesco d'Errico's viewpoint in the March issue of Antiquity (article too long to reproduce here) regarding the Neanderthal flute found in Slovenia by Ivan Turk. D'Errico argues the bone artifact is not a flute.

D'Errico omits dealing with the best evidence that this bone find is a flute.

Regarding the most important evidence, that of the holes being lined up, neither d'Errico nor Turk make mention of this.

This line-up is remarkable especially if they were made by  more than one carnivore, which apparently they'd have to be, based on Turk's analysis of the center-spans of the holes precluding their being made by a single carnivore or bite (Turk,* pp.171-175). To account for this possible difficulty, some doubters do mention "one or more" carnivores (Chase & Nowell, Science News 4/4/98).

My arguments over the past year pointed out the mathematical odds of the lining up of the holes occurring by chance-chewing are too difficult to believe.

The Appendix in my essay ("Neanderthal Flute --A Musicological Analysis") proves that the  number of ways a set of 4 random holes could be differently spaced (to produce an audibly different  set of tones) are 680 ways. The chances a random set would match the existing fragment's spacing  [which also could produce a match to four diatonic notes of the scale] are therefore only one in  hundreds. If, in calculating the odds, you also allowed the holes to be out of line, or to be less than 4 holes as well, then the  chance of a line-up match is only one from many tens of thousands.

And yet randomness and  animal bites still are acceptable to account for holes being in line that could also play some notes of the scale? This is too much coincidence for me to believe occurred by chance.

D'Errico mentions my essay in his article and what he thought it was about, but he overstates my case into being a less believable one. My case simply was that if the bone was long enough (or a shorter bone extended by a mouthpiece insert) then the 4 holes would be consistent and in tune with the sounds of Do, Re, Mi, Fa (or flat Mi, Fa, Sol, and flat La in a minor scale).

In the 5 points I list below, extracted from Turk's monograph in support of this being a flute, d'Errico omits dealing with much of the first, and all of the second,  fourth and sixth points.

Turk & Co's monograph shows the presence on site of boring  tools, and includes experiments made by Turk's colleague Guiliano Bastiani who successfully produced  similar holes in fresh bone using tools of the type found at the site (pp. 176-78 Turk).

They also wrote (pp. 171-75) that:

1. The center-to-center distances of the holes in the artifact are smaller than that of the tooth spans of most carnivores. The smallest tooth spans they found were 45mm, and the holes on the bone are 35mm (or less) apart;

2. Holes bitten are usually at the ends of bones rather than in the center of them;

3. There is an absence of dents, scratches and other signs of gnawing and counter-bites on the  artifact;

4. The center-to-center distances do not correspond to the spans of carnivores which could pierce the bone;

5. The diameters of the holes are greater than that producible by a wolf exerting the greatest  jaw pressure it had available --  it's doubtful that a wolf's jaws would be strong  enough (like a hyena's) to have made the holes, especially in the thickest part of the wall of the artifact.

6. If you accept one or more carnivores, then why did they over-target one bone, when there were so many other bones in the cave site? Only about 4.5% of the juvenile bones were chewed or had holes, according to Turk (p. 117).

* Turk, Ivan (ed.) (1997). Mousterian Bone Flute. Znanstvenoraziskovalni Center Sazu, Ljubljana, Slovenia.


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