Are Neanderthal bone flutes the work of Ice Age hyenas?

April 9, 2015, The Royal Society
'Bone flutes' found accross Europe in caves are more likely to be the scavenged remains of cave bears finds this study. Credit: Cajus G. Diedrich

A study in Royal Society Open Science says that so called 'Neanderthal bone flutes' are no more than the damaged bones of cave bear cubs left by scavengers during the Ice Age.

The paper suggests that the 'flutes', which are often attributed as being the oldest musical instruments in the world, were misidentified when they were first discovered in the 1920s. The author of the paper, Cajus G. Diedrich, says the bones are the damaged remains of bear cubs left by the teeth of Ice Age spotted hyenas.

The cave bear bones, discovered in cave systems in Eastern Europe, appear to have aligned holes drilled into their lengths which makes them resemble broken flutes. In past work researchers have identified the holes as matching with a musical diatonic scale sequence, among the most widespread of musical scales known, and cited this as evidence that the bones are early . Some musicians have even been able to create music from replicas of the bones.

Other researchers doubted the human origin of the markings on the bones and here Dr. Diedrich argues that his analysis of the markings and holes suggests that they were made by scavengers trying to get to the nutritious bone marrow inside the bone shafts.

The researcher analysed bone material from Weisse Kuhle Cave where there was a large cave bear den. Puncture marks are only present on the bones of cubs. Compared to adult bones, cub bones would have been more elastic and therefore more likely to puncture rather than break under pressure. In addition, the results showed that the position of the holes on the 19 cub femurs tested were predominantly on the thinner side of the bone and that where there are holes on both sides of the bones the holes match up with the damage upper and lower jaw bone crushing teeth in the skull of a hyena could do. The paper also says that the oval shaped holes in the bone shafts would match with the oval marks a crushing premolar tooth of a hyena would leave.

As well as seeing how well the marks fitted with the hypothesis that a hyena scavenger could be to blame for the mysterious holes, the study addressed whether the marks matched well with human drilled holes. The researcher found that there are no signs of drill marks or stone tool marks on the margins of the holes which would have resulted from human tool use. A reconstruction of the drilling process didn't replicate the marks seen on the flutes either.

To this evidence the researcher adds that the dating of the 'flutes' as 'Neanderthal' even places them in the wrong period of history. They match instead with the Late Palaeolithic period which came after Neanderthal had died out.

Explore further: Altamura Man yields oldest Neanderthal DNA sample

More information: "'Neanderthal bone flutes': simply products of Ice Age spotted hyena scavenging activities on cave bear cubs in European cave bear dens" Royal Society Open Science , DOI: 10.1098/rsos.140022

Related Stories

Altamura Man yields oldest Neanderthal DNA sample

April 3, 2015

(—A team of researchers working in Italy has confirmed that Altamura Man was a Neanderthal and dating of pieces of calcite which were on the remains has revealed that the bones are 128,000 to 187,000 years old. ...

Prehistoric flute in Germany is oldest known

June 24, 2009

Excavations in the summer of 2008 at the sites of Hohle Fels and Vogelherd produced new evidence for Paleolithic music in the form of the remains of one nearly complete bone flute and isolated small fragments of three ivory ...

Recommended for you

Machine learning identifies links between world's oceans

March 21, 2019

Oceanographers studying the physics of the global ocean have long found themselves facing a conundrum: Fluid dynamical balances can vary greatly from point to point, rendering it difficult to make global generalizations.

How fluid viscosity affects earthquake intensity

March 21, 2019

Fault zones play a key role in shaping the deformation of the Earth's crust. All of these zones contain fluids, which heavily influence how earthquakes propagate. In an article published today in Nature Communications, Chiara ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (5) Apr 09, 2015
This seems a bit far fetched. African hyenas tend to crush and eat bones for marrow. The notion that they would carefully puncture elastic femurs of cubs on the thin side in a straight line with a particular spacing in order to somehow suck the marrow out strikes be as a bit disingenuous. The authors seem more motivated to avoid assigning any cultural resources to Neanderthals at any cost in credibility than to actually understand the alleged flutes origins.
5 / 5 (2) Apr 09, 2015
Yet the researchers also debate the vintage of the bones, placing them in the post-Neanderthal period - which doesn't necessarily preclude them remaining musical instruments made by later hominids, however with the other objections raised it does seem the more biased conjecture.

Don't get me wrong i'm also disappointed - i've long referenced these finds as supporting my own theories about the innate inevitability of harmonic series tuning... but the weight of evidence here does seem to lean towards an incidental consistency. It's a shame because other materials that might've be used to fashion primitive flutes are much less likely to be preserved so well as bone - which would present ideal evidence for paleomusicology.

5 / 5 (5) Apr 09, 2015
One last possibility to be explored is that the original researchers also concluded that the putative 'instruments' were tuned to one another - and so designed for producing polyphonic harmonies. This would require not just consistent hole spacing (as might also result from the same individual or similar-sized accomplices biting multiple bones), but also complimentary Q-values - lengths and widths of the resonaing cavities relative to the hole spacings...

It would seem a remarkable coincidence if scavenging animals inadvertently bit at just the right locations to keep all the resulting 'flutes' in tune with each other...

Regardless, this find seems more incontrovertible:
1 / 5 (5) Apr 10, 2015
I wonder how for so many years resurchers does not found the complete set of bones of hypothetical primordial man. So far in museums we can sea only available interpretations - collected bones of various skeletons of various species, modified in the sculpture workshops to resemble something similar to man.
3 / 5 (2) Apr 11, 2015
slanderous libel meant to discredit the works of such great composers as Neanderthal Mozart and Neanderthal Bach
Whydening Gyre
not rated yet May 05, 2015
slanderous libel meant to discredit the works of such great composers as Neanderthal Mozart and Neanderthal Bach

"Decomposing Composers" (Ian Durry)

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.