Making Music Neandertal Style

DENVER--Researchers have found what they believe is the world's oldest musical instrument: a hollow bone fragment that appears to be a flute.

Bonnie Blackwell, a geologist and archaeologist at Queens College in New York, and her colleagues have dated the bone fragment from Slovenia to between 43,000 and 82,000 years old. They will present their work here later today at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. The find is the first hint that Neandertals may have enjoyed music, Blackwell says.

Ivan Turk of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences in Lubjana last year excavated the 10-centimeter bone fragment in a cave called Divje Babe I. Blackwell, who carbon dated the layer of earth in which the bone was found, says the flute--if that's what it is--was made from a femur of a young cave bear, a species that went extinct 35,000 years ago. The fragment has a row of four finger-sized holes. Animals could have made the holes, Blackwell acknowledges, but "it would be pretty surprising to have an animal make them in such a straight line." The fragment resembles bone flutes found in other European and Asian sites, but this one is at least 10,000 years older, she says.

The Babe cave, one of the richest archaeological sites in Slovenia, also yielded evidence of hearths and Neandertal tools similar to those from sites in Croatia and northern Italy.