Did ancient humans play modern scales?

Julie Andrews made the do-re-mi scale famous by cleverly teaching it to her spoiled young charges, but Neanderthals may have been better students. A recent analysis of what may be the world's oldest known musical instrument, a flutelike piece of bone found at a Neanderthal hunting camp, suggests that more than 43,000 years ago the foothills of the Slovenian Alps may have been alive with the sound of music based on that very same scale.
reconstructed from a bear bone could have played do-re-mi.

Image: Portia Rollings

The "flute" was discovered in 1995 by Slovenian Academy of Sciences paleontologist Ivan Turk, who was leading excavations of the Divje Babe I cave in northwestern Slovenia. Found near an ancient hearth and Mousterian tools (those associated with Neanderthals of this period), the fragment of cave bear thigh bone preserves two complete holes and perhaps remnants of two others. The holes in this bone, between 43,000 and 82,000 years old, are "really well rounded and just about the right separation for humans to put their fingers on," according to team member Bonnie Blackwell, a Queens College geologist.

When Bob Fink, a musicologist in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, saw a photograph in a newspaper report announcing the discovery last year, the spacing of the holes caught his eye. The distance between the second and third holes was twice that between the third and fourth holes. This indicated to Fink that the flute could produce whole tones and half tones, the fundamental elements of the diatonic, or do-re-mi, scale. The notes are "inescapably diatonic," Fink writes in his analysis. Based on the widespread use of this scale throughout many cultures over time, the odds are, says Fink, that the complete flute would have produced the entire scale. He thus suspects that the flute had at least six holes and was some 37 centimeters long.

Not everyone agrees with Fink. Cleveland State University ethnomusicologist T. Temple Tuttle points out that for the observed hole spacings, "there are a number of scales for which this is a prototype," citing the South Indian system as a more likely match.

Others wonder whether this piece of bone is indeed a flute. The holes may simply be the result of carnivore gnawing. Blackwell maintains that nothing on the micrographs indicates that this bone has been chewed on, but other researchers want to judge for themselves. "I haven't seen it," admits New York University anthropologist Randall K. White, "but my tendency for this kind of Mousterian stuff is to be hyperskeptical."

David W. Frayer, an anthropologist at the University of Kansas, attributes a lot of skepticism to preconceived notions about Neanderthals and their capabilities. He points to a strikingly similar flute from Hungary attributed to later Europeans. "No one doubted that it was a flute, and it's more fragmentary than the Divje Babe flute," Frayer says. "That this is found in the Mousterian causes people to question it."

Flute playing would fit neatly into the growing body of evidence that supports a view of a more sophisticated Neanderthal: they buried their dead, made symbolic objects and adorned their bodies. And if they were playing musical instruments, opines University of Michigan paleoanthropologist Milford H. Wolpoff, "it would be a key to arguing that they were capable of language as well."

But such advanced practices may not have seeded the modern human inclination for them. Researchers analyzing DNA that was extracted from Neanderthal bone found no trace of genetic intermixing with moderns and therefore concluded that Neanderthals are not our ancestors. Critics, however, point out that these findings are based on a very small sequence of DNA from a single individual and that the data are still compatible with Neanderthal ancestry. Yet even if Neanderthals were an evolutionary dead end, it is clear that they had more in common with Julie Andrews and other modern humans than anyone would have predicted.

--Kate Wong