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Did Neanderthals Make Music?

Credit J. J.
Jelle Atema playing music on a lobster claw at WCAI

Music has been called the universal language and noted as one of the things that make humans distinct. But when did we first make music?

In 2009, archaeologists announced they'd found the oldest musical instrument ever discovered - a bone flute dating back some 40,000 years.

Jelle Atema wasn't among them. In fact, he's not even an archaeologist. He's a marine zoologist who studies how ocean animals use their sense of smell to communicate and navigate. But he almost chose a career as a flutist.

Along the way, Atema's artistic and scientific passions collided and he ended up exploring the world of prehistoric instruments. He's made replicas of multiple bone flutes, the oldest of which may be 50,000 years old - made by Neanderthals. And, unlike most, he can play them, to haunting effect.

Of course, it's impossible to know what Neanderthal music may have sounded like. As music archaeologist John Franklin recently told Living Lab, it's difficult enough to know what Greek music from a few thousand years ago sounded like, and he has dozens of partial scores to work from. When Atema plays his prehistoric instruments, he's going entirely on instinct. And, of course, he's assuming that what he's playing was actually intended to be an instrument - an idea that is still controversial and formally unvetted by the archaeology community.

Still, the result is other-worldly and the idea, alluring. Is music one of the defining features of humanity?

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