The National Museum of Slovenia is proud to display the earliest musical instrument in the world, a 60,000-year-old Neanderthal flute.
This object of global significance was discovered during archaeological excavations of Divje babe cave, and has been declared by experts to have definitely been made by Neanderthals.
A femur of a young cave bear was redesigned clearly with the intent to be used for sound expression, and thus is no random product. The distribution of the holes and preserved length make a system that allows a wide range of sonority in melodic movement.
The flute from Divje babe is the oldest Palaeolithic flute known to date worldwide and the only one that was definitely made by Neanderthals. It is at least 10,000 years older than other Palaeolithic flutes, which are contemporaneous with the appearance of the anatomically modern people in Europe; fundamental evidence that the Neanderthals were, like us, fully developed spiritual beings capable of sophisticated artistic expression.
See the oldest musical instrument in the world at the National Museum of Slovenia, and listen to how it sounds.
Here you can see a 3D image of the flute.
Where does it come from
The bone flute was discovered in 1995 in the cave of Divje babe near Cerkno during systematic excavations led by Ivan Turk. The cave lies below the north-eastern edge of the Šebrelje plateau, 230 meters above the Idrijca River. The cave, which was otherwise a den for cave bears, was used occasionally during the last Glaciation as a shelter for humans as well, first by the Neanderthals and afterwards by the first Cro-Magnons. The flute lay alongside one of the hearths.
How old is it
Until recently it was thought that the earliest flutes in Europe had been made by the Cro-Magnons some 40,000–30,000 years ago. The flute from Divje babe is older. The age of the layer in which the flute was discovered was recently established on the basis of electron spin resonance used on bear teeth. It is dated to ca. 60,000 years ago. In archaeological terms this period belongs to the end of the middle Palaeolithic.
Who made it
The flute is for the time being unique, not merely in Europe but also throughout the rest of the world. A Neanderthal individual made it, for it was discovered together in a layer with Neanderthal tools. The Neanderthals appeared in the territory of present Slovenia approximately 200,000 years ago, as is proven by the stone tools characteristic of their culture (Mousterian). They died out in the period when the more innovative and aggressive Cro-Magnons gradually became predominant (ca. 40,000–30,000 years before the present).
A Neanderthal with a flute.
How was it made
The flute was made from the tubular section of a thighbone of a cave bear cub. The researchers have proven how the holes were made through practical experimentation. A conical flint tool was used to carve a small hollow at the site of the future hole, which was then cut through with a bone punch. This experiment along with musical research has finally refuted hypotheses that the bone was perforated because of an animal bite.
The significance of the find
The flute from Divje babe is earlier than all Palaeolithic flutes known to the present throughout the world and at the same time is the first reliably proven to be made by a Neanderthal. The others are considered to be Cro-Magnon artefacts. Its discovery additionally illuminates the mental capabilities and the world of sensation of the Neanderthals, and is also important for understanding the development of human speech and music.
You can enjoy listening to the melodies masterfully played on a copy of the Neanderthal flute by musician Ljuben Dimkaroski. CDs Prazvok davnine – A sound from the past
are waiting for you at the museum shop.
Ljuben Dimkaroski playing the copy of the Neanderthal flute form Divje babe.
Object: Neanderthal flute – the flute from Divje babe
Description: The oldest flute in the world. It is pierced by two well-preserved and three damaged holes. The flute from Divje babe is the oldest of Palaeolithic flutes known to the present throughout the world and at the same time the first reliably proven to be made by a Neanderthal. As far as we now know, Neanderthals were the first among the closest human relatives that made musical instruments. The flute from Divje babe testifies to the fact that Neanderthals were capable of such an abstract and uniquely human activity as creating musis.
Date/Period: 60,000 years before the present, middle Palaeolithic
Material: Cave bear bone (femur)
Dimensions: Length: 11.2 cm
Findspot: Divje babe cave near Cerkno, Slovenia
Inv. No: D. b. 625
Location: Permanent exhibition Prehistorical Treasures of the National Museum of Slovenia at the National Museum of Slovenia – Prešernova
Ivan Turk: Divje Babe I. Paleolitsko najdišče mlajšega pleistocena v Sloveniji (2. del: Arheologija) / Upper Pleistocene Palaeolithic site in Slovenia (Part 2: Archaeology). Opera Instituti Archaeologici Sloveniae 29, Ljubljana 2014.
Ivan Turk: Divje Babe I. Paleolitsko najdišče mlajšega pleistocena v Sloveniji (1. del: Geologija in paleontologija) / Upper Pleistocene palaeolithic site in Slovenia (Part 1: Geology and Palaeontology). Opera Instituti Archaeologici Sloveniae 13, Ljubljana 2007.
Ljuben Dimkaroski: Glasbena raziskovanja najdbe iz Divjih bab I. Neandertalčeva piščal: od domnevne piščali do sodobnega glasbila. Argo 53/2, 2010, str. 10–17. (pdf, 909 KB)