Stone Age Tunes

Stone Age Tunes Photo Credit: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, "Flûte paléolithique (musée national de Slovénie, Ljubljana)" (CC by 2.0) [via Flickr]

When people think of cavemen, they usually think of slow-witted, hairy people inventing fire and drawing cave-paintings. But new research is now showing another more sophisticated side of Neanderthals, who loved to make and listen to music.


Breathing new life into prehistoric song. I'm Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Fifty millennia ago, a Neanderthal may have entertained friends with flute music something like this. Boston University biologist and flutist Jelle Atema constructed this flute from an actual prehistoric cave bear bone. He designed it based on a fifty-thousand year old flute found in Slovenia.

"And that is a flute that was found in a Neanderthal area in a cave bear cave. The flute of course was broken in some ways, but sufficiently intact that you could make a guess at what kind of a flute it might have been like."

The ability to make such a fine instrument is at odds with the stereotype of Neanderthals being brutish and dull. In fact, Doctor Atema believes the cave bear flute was a recorder-style instrument-- a design that requires a lot of skill to create.

"So the dexterity as well as the intellectual insight to construct such a thing are quite considerable. And to me it is tremendously exciting that Neanderthals may have in fact had this kind of knowledge and skill."

Doctor Atema has fashioned other instruments based on prehistoric flutes, including this thirty-thousand year old recorder from France. His goal is to go beyond what can be learned about early humans from mere bones, to discover the earliest roots of art and culture that make us truly human.

For the American Association for the Advancement of Science, I'm Bob Hirshon.

Making Sense of the Research

This more sophisticated side of Neanderthals means a lot considering the technology and intelligence it takes to create musical instruments and melodies, not to mention the cultural sophistication required to make and appreciate music. Tools like a prehistoric flute can tell us much about the Neanderthal culture as well as our own civilization. By studying the tools of earliest human beings, we can discover more about the beginnings of human art and culture.

Now try to answer the following questions:

  1. How long ago did Neanderthals live?
  2. What is the prehistoric flute made from?
  3. Where did Dr. Atema find the prehistoric flute? Where has he found other flutes?
  4. How does the flute prove that Neanderthals were smart and skilled?
  5. Why does Dr. Atema think it is important to study prehistoric instruments?
  6. What kind of tools and instruments do we use today? What do they tell us about ourselves?

For Educators

For a related article on the discovery of the cave bear flute go to: Music of the Neanderthals.

To read about the most recent discovery of the world's oldest still-playable musical instrument, go to: 9,000-Year-Old Flutes. You can also hear music played on the ancient flute.

A good website for more information on Neanderthals and prehistoric times is: Walking with Cavemen.

For an interactive explanation and exploration of archaeology go to: Simon Fraser University Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology where you must deal with the puzzles that come up on real archaeological digs.

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