Did Neanderthals make music?

fluteSomething remarkable happened during the Upper Paleolithic. Culture appeared in the form of art. This is the first evidence of not just complex cultural behavior but the emergence of symbols and abstract thinking. The Upper Paleolithic was a time of great transition. The Neanderthals disappeared from Europe by 33,000 years ago, and modern humans inherited a world unto themselves.

In recent years, the notion of a “Creative Explosion” has given way to the recognition of a long history of development of abstract human behaviors. Long before we humans left Africa, there is no doubt that things really got cooking. Stone tools of the Upper Paleolithic were primarily blade-based technology, stone pieces that are twice as long as they are wide, and generally having parallel sides. People created an astonishing range of formal tools, implements created to specific, wide-spread patterns. In addition to stone lithics, bone and antler, shell and wood were also used, including the first eyed needles presumably for making clothing about 21,000 years ago.Venus of Willendorf, courtesy of Oke at wikimedia commons

The Upper Paleolithic is perhaps best known for the abundance of cave art, wall paintings and engravings of animals and abstractions created in caves such as Altamira, Lascaux and Coa. Mobile art, including the famous Venus Figurines and sculpted batons of antler and bone carved with representations of animals, also appear in this period, but it is the debate that has raged for twenty years about the Slovenia artifact that most provokes argument. This 50,000 year old bone fragment from a cave bear might just be a flute manufactured by a premodern human, possibly a Neanderthal. Visit the Music of Sound website to check out the Divje Babe artifact for yourself.


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  1. #1 by Matthew Wright on December 10, 2013 - 1:42 am

    It’s an intriguing question; ‘conventional’ wisdom indicates that H. sapiens alone made music and told stories. And yet we keep finding more and more things Neandertals did which reduces any distinction. Unsurprising, I guess, given they were a cousin species derived from the same common ancestor (H. heidelbergensis) and I have heard it said that they simply represented a different way of being human. Like lions and tigers represent different ways of being big cats. The evidence seems to be collecting that this is a reasonable way of looking at Neandertals. So it wouldn’t be surprising if they had flutes – just like we did (there’s a 30,000 year old flute, explicitly H. sapiens, found recently).

    • #2 by Lesann Berry on December 11, 2013 - 4:37 pm

      I agree, it is intriguing, but I feel that way about the entire Pleistocene. As a student I was baffled by the academic dismissal of Neanderthal cultural achievements – I mean, if you have all the attributes of culture why not just call it that? Of course I like to root for the underdog. Since the majority of the planet vastly underestimates the capability of ancient populations, it’s very satisfying to see old stereotypes and assumptions turned on their heads. I love your analogy of lions and tigers representing different ways of being big cats. The same certainly seems to apply with our close relations. The number of exquisitely formed artifacts dating from ages exceeding 30K BP clearly indicates there was a rich and varied lifestyle (at least in some places). I continue to wonder what has disappeared from the landscape leaving behind no traces of its existence. Imagine what forms of adornment, instruments, calendrical devices, perhaps even astronomical observations might have been. I wish somebody would hurry up and make a time-machine. When would you go first?

      • #3 by Matthew Wright on December 14, 2013 - 8:35 pm

        There are too many times I want to see for me to choose! Absolutely I’d go to some part of the last ice age – maybe Gibraltar, 30k BCE, to check up on the Neandertals. I am convinced they’ve had a bad rap, purely on the back of Victorian-era ‘progressivism’ and the mash-up that happened between economic market theory and evolutionary theory. Ways always had to be found to deny their sophistication on the logic that they’d vanished, ergo we’d out-competed them in some fashion. Clive Findlayson begs to differ – great book, if you’ve caught up with it, ‘Humans Who Went Extinct’. I agree with him. While we need to be cautious about being over-deterministic, I also don’t think we should under-estimate our cousin species. Or suppose that we ourselves are in any way free of the risk of disappearing through the way we express the human condition ourselves (alas!).

        I weep at the thought of the quantity of artefacts that must have disappeared – clothing, wood, even bone maybe – that would shed so much light on our evolutionary cousins and ancestors.

        • #4 by Lesann Berry on December 20, 2013 - 8:41 am

          I’m in agreement – too many places and times to visit. I think it would be smart to design the time machine in such a way that while in use and traveling there is no passage of time. That way we can bebop all over and only be gone a few minutes from the present. The physicists should get right on that – when their done sorting out the God particle. I’ve not read Clive Findlayson’s book but I’ve added it to my TBR pile. I suspect there’s been a great deal of under-estimating of cousin species and over-aggrandizing of at least one. It’s stunning how much new material has been discovered in recent years. I credit the internet and boost of communication networks in general for facilitating that, at least in part. I keep telling students that the ancient world has become a different place than it was when I was a student (at least our comprehension of it). That probably happens to every generation.

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