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Holes in a Bone: Flute or Fluke?

Scientists disagree on who or what put holes in a prehistoric bone.

By Jennifer Abbasi
Aug 27, 2015 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:48 AM


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Many experts believe an approximately 45,000-year-old bear femur could be a flute — the oldest known musical instrument. Ivan Turk discovered the bone in 1995 in Slovenia’s Divje Babe Archaeological Park, among cave deposits containing Neanderthal tools. But is it a hominin-made flute, or just a bone scavenged by ancient hyenas? In Science Smackdown, we let experts argue both sides of the question.

A Bone Is Just a Bone

Turk and his followers are wrong, says Cajus Diedrich, a paleozoologist and cave researcher in the Czech Republic. They didn’t properly consider the bone biting and crushing patterns of ice age hyenas that scavenged extensively in European cave bear dens.

In a recent Royal Society Open Science paper, Diedrich argues that a hyena could’ve bitten holes in the juvenile cave bear femur without crushing it because the young bone wasn’t fully hardened and was still spongelike inside. The lack of counterbites on the other side actually makes sense, he says, because only the hyena’s top teeth could puncture. So it’s possible the now-extinct scavengers made the “flute.”

Give Neanderthals Some Credit

Jelle Atema, a Boston University biologist who created a replica of the femur from a cave bear fossil, isn’t convinced. An accomplished flautist, Atema has followed the debate for decades. He believes Turk’s initial excavation and subsequent experiments using hyenalike jaws on modern bear bones show the bone would’ve split and had counterbite marks. Using bone-cracking tests, “you can occasionally get a single hole, but not a row of nice, round holes all in one bone,” Atema says.

Regardless of who or what made the holes, Atema says, people have played replicas to demonstrate that the holes produce different pitches. “One cannot dismiss this intriguing bone as a flute,” he says. “But we can never be sure it was used as such. We were not there.”

[This article originally appeared in print as "Flute or Fluke?"]

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