Musical Prehistory, Obvious Inferences & Being Human

Adrian Currie writes...

A few years ago archaeologists digging at Swabian Jura (a mountain range in south-west Germany) unearthed a long, hollow, tubular object with small, even-spaced holes along one side. It is made of bird bone and has a notch at one end. It dated to around 40,000 years ago – right when H. sapiens were making their way into Europe and displacing/interbreeding with/influencing/being-influenced-by our much-maligned close cousins the Neanderthals. In addition to the complete bird-bone object, they also found bits and pieces of a few other mammoth ivory objects. The finds were pretty sensational, being reported in 2009 in Nature as the oldest indisputable remains of musical instruments.

In case you haven't guessed, the objects were flutes.

We’ve found flutes in Europe before: there are many examples of such instruments dating to around 15 to 20,000 years ago. But this discovery pushes the emergence of this kind of material culture way back.

There isn’t much debate—none that I’ve found—concerning the flutiness of the find. Rather, it's being a flute appears to be obvious. And its worth emphasizing that it’s not as if scientists just found a flute lying in a cave. As Nicholas Conard and his co-authors describe, the flute we see above was recovered in 12 pieces—presumably carefully pieced together (although most were found in situ). Indeed, the partial remains of other flutes were found as well, these made of mammoth ivory, and no-one that I’ve seen questions the nature of those fragments.

Further, Conard and company don’t explicitly present their discussion as evidence for interpreting the item as a flute.

"The flute has five finger holes. The maker carved two deep, V-shaped notches into one end of the instrument, presumably to form the proximal end of the flute, into which the musician blew” (738)

They also point to fine lines near the holes:

“These precisely carved markings probably reflect measurements used to indicate where the finger holes were to be carved using chipped-stone tools” (738).

Note that although this could be presented as evidence for a flute interpretation, they aren’t. In Daniel Adler’s accompanying discussion to the main paper, this is the sum total of his defence of that interpretation:

“There is little doubt that these implements are flutes…” (696)

Being a philosopher and all, I’ve carefully reconstructed the argumentative structure.

1.       We found a flute

2.       Look at it, it’s clearly a flute

3.       Therefore, it’s a flute.

There’s a supplementary premise for premise 2:

2(a). Look at that flute, are you looking at the flute? Right? It’s a flute.

Perhaps we have a new argument form: let’s call it an inference to the bloody obvious. It’s just obviously a flute: whatever warrant there is needn’t be stated (or the ‘obviousness’ is all that’s required).

So? Well, although the find is important and surprising, there is no defence of the crucial interpretive step which makes the find important and surprising: namely, that this is a very old wind instrument. (there’s plenty of discussion of the find’s actual age, but here we’re focused on its being a flute).

What are the conditions for an inference to the bloody obvious? Regarding the flute, your first thought should be that the object’s form heavily restricts its function. If the object is not a flute, many of its features become mysterious: why the evenly-spaced holes? Why the notches at the end? Why make such a thing in the first place? And perhaps your second thought – again, a good one – is the relative completeness of the find. Even though it was put together from 12 parts, it was a pretty simple puzzle by archaeological standards. So, we have (1) form being highly suggestive of function, and (2) unambiguity in form. Are those two features sufficient to underwrite an inference to the bloody obvious? I don’t think so.

Let’s take a step back and consider the wider context of Upper-Paleolithic Europe, then take a wee side-step into a much more contentious ‘flute’, and from that, come to an explanation of just why the fluteyness of the flute doesn’t appear to need explicit support.

One of the most contentious areas of paleoanthropology concerns the radiation of H. sapiens into Europe. These new settlers were already 'behaviorally modern'. At base, behavioural modernity is an archaeological notion: it refers to particular assemblages of items—a sophisticated material culture—which are themselves indicative of technological and cultural sophistication. Often included is evidence of burial practices, figurative art, complex blade construction, and so forth. From the European perspective, such assemblages appear to ‘burst’ onto the scene, in an Upper Palaeolithic revolution. It’s been pointed out that this revolutionary picture is highly suspect: because the vast bulk of work on paleolithic human groups has been carried out in Europe, what looks like a revolution is more likely a migration. But even if the settlers were not special in their humanness, perhaps they were special in their culture? Views are basically divided into those who think that something exciting happened in Europe 40k years ago, and those who think there was a gradual accumulation of culture in Africa and the middle-east which then migrated into Europe. A variation on the euro-centric picture emphasizes the meeting of sapiens and Neanderthal: perhaps it was influence from Neanderthal culture which sparked the changes in sapiens.

Needless to say, it’s a tricky debate: timing events is contentious, evidence is fragmentary, and the European focus makes bias (both in attitudes and evidence-gathering) an ongoing concern.

This is what makes the finds coming out of Swabian Jura important: there’s reason to think that human migration into Northern and Western Europe went through those mountains, and there are some amazing finds there. The Hohl Fels Venus, for instance, is the earliest example of its kind, only competing with the ‘lion-man’. Both date to around the same period (35-40k years ago), and both—like the flute fragments—are carved from Mammoth ivory.

The Hohl Fels Venus.

The Hohl Fels Venus.

In light of such early finds, ivory-worked figurative pieces and musical instruments, it is tempting to think that *something happened* as humans spread into the mountains of South-West Germany—a something which set off a technological and cultural cascade—a something perhaps inspired by interaction with Neanderthal (either by us humans wanting to differentiate ourselves from Neanderthal, or by their influencing us more directly). But again, it’s important to be wary: we’ve done a lot more digging for humans in Europe, and some of the conditions in Europe (all those cold caves) make for better preservation, and indeed, it is likely that there are all kinds of instruments and figurative art that don’t leave the same kinds of traces. And we’ve every reason to think that humans living in other parts of the world used these.

But to shed light on the argument from the bloody obvious, we should consider evidence for flutes made by a quite different group of people.

The 'Lion-Man'

The 'Lion-Man'

As we’ve seen, related to the debate concerning whether the Upper-Paleolithic was special vis-à-vis its new human arrivals, there is also debate concerning their relationship with their new neighbours: the much-derided Neanderthals. Views on Neanderthals spread from their being thuggish, rough-and-tough half-humans (the rugged survivalists of the hominid lineage) to highly cultured, sophisticated, might-as-well-be-humans. The evidence for views on the latter side include tantalizing archaeological hints about bead-work, burial and—here’s where our flute-based theme returns—music.

Way back in 1997, Turk reported a find from the Divje babe caves in Eastern Europe. It was a juveline cave-bear femur. Have a look:

pic 4.png

Those holes are pretty suggestive of finger-holes, I’d say. And that broken bit on the right end looks like it had another hole as well, and that bit on the left looks like it could have been a mouth-piece. However, many researchers (here, here, and here for example) have gone to a lot of trouble to argue that in fact holes like these are made by large carnivores.

Why? Well, because they’re too early: they date from the Middle-Paleolithic. That is, if they are flutes, they are flutes made by Neanderthals.

Much more careful work has been carried out questioning and probing the flutiness of the Divje babe find than that from Swabian Jura. Where, it is asked, are the tell-tale signs of tool use on the bone? Couldn’t the holes represent damage from carnivores? Or just weathering?

In response, Tuniz et al report a set of studies. They analysed the piece in minute detail using micro-tomography (basically, you X-ray your piece and then render it digitally in high detail and three dimensions). They also compared different ways of generating Divje-babe-like holes in bones using the kinds of tools also found in the caves and found that they didn’t really leave ‘tell-tale’ traces, and that moreover the marks on the flute just don’t line up with other examples of carnivore damage.

Delightfully, they also report on making a replica of the flute from a well-preserved young cave-bear’s femur (by the way, making musical instruments from the remains of extinct lineages strikes me as particularly badass):

pic 5.png

As they report:

“This ‘musical instrument’ can achieve two and a half octaves in a tone sequences of a 12-tone scale. If overblowing is taken into account, its range is more than three octaves. In musical jargon, it is possible to perform legato, staccato, frullato, glissando, decomposed chords, interval leaps and melodic sequences from the lowest to the highest pitch. The dynamic musical capabilities range from piano to forte, as in the case of modern flutes” (588).

Tuniz et al are restrained in their conclusion – “While the current evidence cannot conclusively prove a Neanderthal origin for this archaeological specimen, carnivores did not produce many of the features on the ‘flute’” (588) – but, considering the discussion above, we might wonder why this isn’t an inference to the bloody obvious. The remain is very well preserved, as indicated by its amenableness to the very fine-grained analysis Tuniz er al report. Further, the musical capacities of the replica strike me as a pretty strong argument for a tight connection between form and function—so what’s missing? I think the answer has two parts.

First—and more mundanely—accepting Neanderthal flutes requires a much larger overhaul to our background picture of human evolution and dispersal than accepting the Swabian Jura flutes. We know that humans make flutes, and there are bountiful evidence of them, say, 20k years ago. It is something of a surprise to find humans making them 40k years ago, but not really earth-shattering. Indeed, given that we don’t think there are any crucial biological differences between ourselves and Homo sapiens 50,000 years ago, why shouldn’t we expect them to have the idiosyncratic trappings of small-scale human societies? But we don’t know that Neanderthal make flutes. They and we split around 600,000 years ago, and we just don’t know what kinds of differences in behaviour, cognition and sociality evolution could wring in that time. Their building flutes—and making music—then, would be a much more surprising, revolutionary, discovery.

In a sense, then, there’s more epistemically at stake for the Neanderthal flute than the Human flute. So, in addition to a tight coupling between form and function, and well-preserved form, inferences to the bloody obvious musn't be too revolutionary; that is, they shouldn't challenge our background picture too much. But that isn't the end of the story.

Second, and this is more speculative, I think Neanderthals having a musical tradition with a material culture challenges our ideas of what it is to be human. As Conard et al put it:

“Researchers universally accept the existence of complex musical instruments as an indication of fully modern behaviour and advanced symbolic communication” (737).

Music in various guises is a ubiquitous feature of human societies. It is also something that we very much associate with ourselves: it elicits deep emotion, fosters social bonds, often requires cooperation, and is creative in that special, somewhat mysterious way that we like to associate with the better side of humanness. Consider these two quotes attributed to Beethoven:

“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”

“Music is indeed the mediator between the spiritual and sensual life.”

Music is supposed to be a property which connects us to the divine—it makes us special.

It is a tragedy that we are the only twig of the hominid lineage to make it to this point in time. A tragedy on many counts, but here it is an epistemic one: we are left with very little way of knowing to what extent our sapiens-exceptionalism is justified. We point at various traits—complex culture, really tricky tool-use, true language, cumulative learning—and say that, that is what sets us apart, that is what makes us human! But with our closest relatives unavailable, we know neither whether those properties truly distinguish us, or whether we are truly unique, or whether we would happily accept these slightly-odd, slightly-different, creatures as being like us.

So that is why there is no inference-to-the-bloody-obvious to be had for Neanderthal flutes. The stakes aren’t simply those of day-to-day scientific inference, but involve our very conception of what it is to be human.