Archaeologist Ivan Turk discovered a strange relic buried deep in a Slovenian cave. And it’s one that could transform what we know about ancient man.
In a cave high above Slovenia’s Idrijca River, archaeologists sift through the relics of a culture that lived tens of thousands of years ago. But among the remains of animals and echoes of long-lost people is a controversial discovery. People may well talk for decades about a mysterious bone dating from the Late Pleistocene era.
Today, the planet is more explored than ever before, and there are few places that remain totally untouched by human exploration. However, the deep caves scattered around the world are among the last bastions of mystery and discovery, often keeping their ancient secrets hidden for many thousands of years.
Perhaps some of the most famous caves are those at Lascaux, France, where a series of incredible paintings dating back some 17,000 years were discovered in 1940. Elsewhere, in the West Bank, a complex of chambers in the limestone cliffs of Qumran were found to be concealing one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century – the Dead Sea Scrolls.
But for every famous cave complex that yields headline-grabbing artifacts, there are many lesser-known locations with an equally fascinating history. Just one of these is Divje Babe, a karst cavern close to the small town of Cerkno in Slovenia. Sitting some 750 feet above the Idrijca valley, it has been the source of some fascinating discoveries over the years.
Beginning in 1978, Slovenian archaeologist Mitja Brodar started excavations at the cave. Consequently, he stepped down after eight years. Ivan Turk and Janez Dirjec dug the site again, working there from 1989 until 1995. During that time, they penetrated 26 layers of sediment to a depth of almost 40 feet.
One of the most interesting finds recovered from Divje Babe over the years is a bone point, thought to date from the Aurignacian period – a time during the Upper Paleolithic associated with the development of art and refined tools. Because of the marked increase in sophistication evident during this era, some have come to refer to Aurignacians as Europe’s first modern people.
Amazingly, the Aurignacian bone point is estimated to be some 35,000 years old. Additionally, archaeologists have discovered many relics from the Mesolithic era at Divje Babe, including tools fashioned from stone, hearths and items made out of bone, along with remains of the fearsome cave bears that once inhabited this part of the world.
However, in 1995 Turk made a discovery that would go down in history as one of Slovenia’s most famous archaeological finds. Apparently, he was excavating in the vicinity of a hearth associated with the Mousterian industry, which occurred during the Middle Paleolithic and saw Neanderthals fashion flint tools.
Close to this Mousterian hearth, Turk stumbled across the femur bone of a cave bear, which was thought to be about 43,100 years old. However, its age wasn’t the only remarkable thing about this discovery. Amazingly, the ancient artifact boasted two neat, circular holes in one side. These gave it the distinct appearance of a musical instrument such as a flute.
Actually a fragment of a larger bone, the find – dubbed the Divje Babe flute – is fractured at either end. Thought to be the main section of the creature’s left femur, it is just over five inches in length. Meanwhile, the holes measure 0.38 inches and 0.35 inches in diameter. And at 1.38 inches apart, some believe that the alignment was intentionally designed to fit a human hand.
Moreover, each end of the bone appears to show traces of further perforations, meaning that at one time the piece may have boasted multiple holes. But is the Divje Babe artifact really a primitive instrument created by Neanderthals? Over the years, supporters and challengers of this conclusion have put forward many theories.
If the artifact is a type of flute, it would be the oldest musical instrument ever discovered. However, some researchers have suggested that the holes might have been created by carnivores, rather than deliberately carved. For example, archaeologist April Nowell pointed out that animals had chewed the ends of the bone, likely attempting to get at the marrow inside.
“The hole could simply have been perforated in the process by pointed canine teeth or carnassial teeth, and their roundness could be due to natural damage after the bone was abandoned,” Nowell explained in a 1998 interview with the journal California Wild. “The presence of marrow suggests that no one had bothered to hollow out the bone as if to create an end-blown flute.”
Moreover, a 2015 study by Cajus D. Diedrich, from the independent geosciences research institute PaleoLogic, backed up Nowell’s suspicions. “These are not instruments, nor human made, but products of the most important cave bear scavengers of Europe, hyenas,” he wrote.
However, there are some who disagree and insist that there is evidence to suggest the artifact really is man-made. For example, musicologist Bob Fink analyzed the bone and came to an interesting conclusion. He claimed that the four holes appeared to represent a definite musical scale. And that alignment would be unlikely to have happened by chance.
In his 1997 essay, Early Music, Fink stated that the holes were “consistent with four notes of the diatonic scale.” However, Nowell and her colleague Philip Chase have claimed that the bone is too short to represent this scale. Nevertheless, at least one musician, Ljuben Dimkaroski, has played a replica of the instrument with some success.
Adding to the confusion, it is not clear when the holes themselves were made. Although the bone is thought to date back to the time of the Neanderthals, alterations could have been added later. In fact, the entire artifact could be little more than a modern hoax.
Additionally, there are some who disagree with the claim that the artifact is Neanderthal in origin. Instead, the first archaeologist at the dig, Brodar, believes that the bone is similar to those found elsewhere in Slovenia, generally associated with early modern humans. Therefore, he theorizes that Cro-Magnon man, rather than his more primitive ancestor, could have created the flute.
Despite disagreement over the origins of the Divje Babe artifact, it takes pride of place in the National Museum of Slovenia, where it is labeled a Neanderthal flute. Additionally, the Divje Babe Archaeological Park’s website waxes lyrical about its provenance. “The oldest musical instrument in the world,” the website proclaims the piece.
Whatever the origin of the Divje Babe artifact, its discovery has had a major impact on Slovenian society. Today, there are paintings and TV spots themed around the object, as well as performances by musicians featuring replicas. But will we ever find out the real story behind this strange discovery? Only time will tell.