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
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.
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. 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