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Neanderthal flute
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November, 2003

The find of a "Neanderthal flute" is certainly one of the archaeological discoveries in Slovenia to have excited the most interest, and to have initiated the most debate. The find in question is the fruit of long-term archaeological-paleontological research in the cave of Divje babe I, in the Idrijca valley in western Slovenia. This 45 metre long, horizontal cave is only one of around 6500 Karst caves in the world famous Slovene part of the Dinarid Karst and its underground. Many of these caves are archaeological sites, but few of them are 100 thousand and more years old like the Palaeolithic site of Divje babe I

The pierced bone, suspected of being a flute, was found in circumstances which do not allow any real doubt about its absolute (c. 45,000 years) or relative age (earlier than the Early Upper Palaeolithic, Cro Magnon man), nor about the possible archaeological context (Middle Palaeolithic, Neanderthal man) in the framework of the European Palaeolithic. This is despite the fact that Divje babe I is not classified in European terms as among the richest of Palaeolithic sites (more than 600 archaeological finds in at least ten levels, the remains of 20 hearths, modest remains of hunted animals and enormous remains of cave bear). The site is thus essentially a combination of typical lair and graveyard of bear on the one hand, and a classical Palaeolithic cave dwelling on the other, with a series of open questions about the activity of people at the site.

The real challenge for the profession is how to explain the find of, to date, the only femur of a young cave bear pierced in the form of a flute which, on the basis of all the evidence, originates from a time (Middle Palaeolithic) at which neither the technology of working bones nor the necessary artistic (symbolic) behaviour are supposed to have been developed, although weak signals exist for both, the number of which is gradually increasing with new finds.

In explaining the find, the crucial question is the origin of the holes: Are they of natural or artificial origin? In other words, were they made by a carnivore (e.g. cave hyena, cave bear) with their teeth, or by man with technical aids (pointed stone tools used in an appropriate manner)? For the moment, there seems no other possibility. It has to be said that, on the basis of experiments, it is easier to demonstrate the hypothesis of an artificial (human) than a natural (carnivore) origin of the holes. In either case, it is unfortunate that there are no reliable traces evident on the bone itself, and especially by the holes, of either factor which could provide conclusive evidence. This, together with damage (broken ends, various scratches, etc.) which occurred subsequently and which may be the cause of all the professional dilemmas, allows sufficient room for all sorts of guesswork. Unfortunately, all such guesswork is more or less unfounded until the key question of natural or artificial origin is resolved.

Ivan Turk

Neanderthal flute