Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The ongoing Divje babé I flute controversy

Hi all. Sorry for the momentary lack of posts... things are pretty hectice in Arizona. A recent browse through the journals brought a number of new papers to my attention, including the following two, which struck me because they were published at the same time (more or less) and argue exactly opposite interpretation of a single artifact, namely the alleged bone flute from the Mousterian site of Divje babé I, in Slovenia.

Check out Wikipediafor some pics of the thing. Wiki incidentally has a remarkably detailed treatment of this artifact! I present two views of the "flute" taken from that Wiki entry:

In any case, back to the new pubs. The first paper, in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology by Iain Morley, argues against the "flute" interpretation of the artifact. Here's the abstract:

"The reputed Neanderthal ‘flute’ from the Slovenian site of Divje
babe I has stimulated much interest and detailed research since the original
publication of its discovery in 1997. In spite of nearly ten years’ worth of
analysis and discussion its status as an artefact has remained ambiguous;
nevertheless it is still frequently cited as a ‘flute’. This paper examines the
literature and research regarding this object, and finds that much of the
ambiguity regarding the object’s status derives from the literature itself. It
concludes that there is no need to invoke hominin agency in explaining the
features of the bone."

Now, contrast this to the following paper by Turk et al. (2006) "in press" in L'Anthropologie. Their abstract states that:

"The suspected flute, which dates to Moershoofd-Glinde or Orel Interstadial, and is definitely older than 46 ka, was analysed with the aid of multi-slice computed tomography (MSCT) and reinterpreted in the light of two hypotheses, one of which envisages an artificial origin of the holes and the other a natural one. It was found that there were four holes on the diaphysis; that at least two were made prior to the damage to the proximal and distal ends of the diaphysis; and that carnivores could not have made all the holes, but one at the most. The holes are very probably artificial, made by the combined use of stone and simple bone tools found at the Divje babé I site. The majority, and probably all the damage made by carnivores on the suspected flute, are of secondary origin. Conclusions about the origin of the holes cannot therefore be reached only on the basis of the damage, and the hypothesis of an artificial origin cannot be rejected."

Hmmmmmmm. The debate hardly seems closed, does it? Without having had a chance to go through both papers in much depth (I am writing a dissertation, folks!), my natural tendency is to give thorough analyses (i.e., Turk et al. 2006) greater currency than literature reviews (i.e., Morley 2006). Of course, it all depends on the reliability of the tomographic analysis, so I'll defintiely be posting a follow-up to this in the coming days.


Morley, I. 2006. Mousterian musicianship? The case of the Divje Babe I bone. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 25:317–333

Turk, I., B.A.B. Blackwell, J. Turk, and M. Pflaum. 2006. Résultats de l'analyse tomographique informatisée de la plus ancienne flûte découverte à Divje babé I (Slovénie) et sa position chronologique dans le contexte des changements paléoclimatiques et paléoenvironnementaux au cours du dernier glaciaire. L'Anthropologie 110: in press. DOI: 10.1016/j.anthro.2006.06.002.


Alex Steenhuyse said...

Nice post, I was just talking about the flute yesterday in class, I'll make sure to link to your post. I have a great picture (googled) of a little kitten gnawing on the flute, very catchy and sooo cute. I use it in class.
Good luck with the diss!

Anne Gilbert said...


The author of that picture is a passionate supporter of the idea that Divje Babe is a flute. He also is fond of cats.
Anne G