Planet Earth

. . . Or Much Like Us?

By Tim Folger and Shanti MenonJan 1, 1997 12:00 AM


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If Neanderthals were brutishly inefficient tool users, would you expect them to have played the flute? Evidence that they may have done just that turned up in 1996 in a cave in Slovenia. In one of the most surprising archeological finds in years, Ivan Turk, an archeologist at the Slovenian Academy of Sciences, uncovered what appears to be a small flute made from the thighbone of a cave bear. Four precisely aligned holes puncture one side of the four-inch-long bone; two of the holes are intact, two had been damaged.

If it is indeed a flute, it’s by far the oldest musical instrument ever found, and the first to be attributed to Neanderthals. Turk found it buried with stone tools characteristic of those used by Neanderthals, just below a hard-packed, cementlike deposit that would have prevented it from settling down from more recent sediments. Bonnie Blackwell, a geologist at Queens College in New York, dated the flute with a technique called electron spin resonance. She says it dates from 82,000 to 43,000 years ago, a time when Neanderthals--but no anatomically modern humans--inhabited Europe.

It looks very similar to the bird bone flutes of much later periods, Blackwell says, and it drastically changes our opinions of Neanderthals. The recognition that they may have had music suggests they probably had fairly well-developed speech. They certainly did a lot more than just sit around the cave and bash tools.

But when they did bash tools they often bashed sophisticated ones. Last March archeologist Eric Boëda reported the discovery, at an open-air site in Syria, of several stone tools that were more than mere stone: on one side, away from the cutting edge, they bore traces of a black substance. Chemical analysis showed it was bitumen--a thick, sticky material used today in roofing tar--and that it had been heated to a high temperature, which would have made it liquid and supple. Boëda, who works at the University of Paris X in Nanterre, thinks the bitumen was a glue that held handles on the tools.

Before his find, the oldest known use of bitumen as an adhesive had been a 10,000-year-old sickle from Syria, but Boëda’s tools date back at least 42,500 years. In September he found a Neanderthal skull at his site, in sediments from the same period as the tools. He’s fairly certain the toolmakers were Neanderthals. I think the Paleolithic period was a time when a great number of technological and symbolic innovations arose, he says.

Another find announced last January may support that view. In a cave in southern France, near Bruniquel, a team of archeologists led by François Rouzaud of the Regional Archeological Service in Toulouse discovered the foundation of a structure whose purpose remains mysterious. Made from broken stalactites and stalagmites, the foundation measures about 13 feet by 16 feet. Based on radioactive dating of a burned bear bone found in the cave, the structure may be as much as 47,000 years old. That would place it firmly within Europe’s Neanderthal era.

Whatever the structure was, it wasn’t a shelter--and it may not have served a utilitarian purpose at all. In the cave, you’re not going to be hit by rain, says Randall White, an archeologist at New York University familiar with the Bruniquel discovery. The chance of it being a protective shelter seems pretty remote. So what is it? Is this evidence for some kind of, for lack of a better word, ritual activity?

Flutists, makers of sophisticated tools, people perhaps of higher purpose--this past year’s discoveries have helped put human flesh on the elusive Neanderthals. The larger debate is about whether they were our intellectual equals or were somehow neurologically different from us, says White. The more this kind of evidence accumulates, the more they look like us.

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