The Divje Babe flute is believed to be one of the earliest examples of a musical instrument. Carved from the femur of a juvenile cave bear some 43,000 years ago, the bone fragment contains circular punctures believed to be finger holes, forming a primitive flute. Amazing, right? Well, maybe not. New research shows that the ‘flute’ is actually just a bone that’s been gnawed on by a hyena (it’s unlikely that the hyena used it as a flute).

So less of this:

Jazz Flute Gif 2015 04 02

And more of this:

Hyena Gif 2015 04 02

The study, authored by paleobiologist Cajus Diedrich and published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, examined prehistoric animal remains and bone breakage patterns in 15 cave locations in an effort to put the longstanding flute debate to rest. The results indicate that 'Neanderthal bone flutes' do not show marks made by stone drills, but rather, the circular holes are the result of Ice Age hyenas’ teeth, which were strong enough to puncture the soft bones of juvenile bears.

For some the results are not that surprising. “Most paleoanthropologists accept that the Divje Babe ‘flute’ is a carnivore-chewed bone, but you do see it referred to as a flute from time to time,” says April Nowell, an archaeologist at the University of Victoria in Canada.

Although the Divje Babe bone does date back to Neanderthal times, the study points out that several other artefacts similar to it do not. So it’s unlikely that Neanderthals were rocking flute solos 200,000 years ago. The prize for the first creators of musical instruments actually goes to members of the Aurignacian culture of southwest Germany. These early humans fashioned flutes out of vulture bones and mammoth ivory about 40,000 years ago. Unlike the hyena 'chew toys' identified in the study, these flutes show clear evidence of tool work and resemble modern instruments.

It's possible that Neanderthals may still have got their groove on by clapping their hands or slapping their bodies (still better than modern pop music), but there is no evidence that they actually created musical instruments. According to Nowell, this new research will help to “dismantle a myth that has been too persistent in some circles."

Header image: sporti, Creative Commons