Paleolithic Art and Philosophy of the First Sound

  • Mira Omerzel-Terlep


The sound-forming (predominantly perforated) bones from the Paleolithic period of man's history marks the beginning of the history of musical instruments on the present-day Slovene ethnic territory, of the musical history of the European man, and accordingly also of the world instrumental musical history. Archeological findings from the prehistoric period of the last Ice Age discovered on the present-day Slovene ethnic territory rank among the top findings of the world's prehistory since here we have to do with findings which are to be found in the European geographical area and also elsewhere in the world rarely or only exceptionally. Nowhere else in the world such a great number of bones with holes - and of possible pipes - has been found as in our country. Our ethno-archo-musicological study seeks (theoretically and by means of the findings of sound tests) to elucidate the problems related to bone piped from Potočka zijalka, Mokriška jama, Divje babe I, Betalov spodmol... and to compare them with the bone instruments of various peoples over the world from prehistory until today. Among outstanding specialities in Slovenia belong the would-be pipes made of the bear's mandibles from the Augnacian culture of the Cro-Mangnon, and among the oldest in the world Mousterian pipes belonging to the culture of the Neanderthal man from Divje babe I, and also the bear's jawbone with the tine truncated, which belong to the culture of the aforementioned ancestors of Homo sapiens. Assumptions held so far that our ancient ancestors began to develop their aesthetic and artistic (hence also musical) instrumental starting moves only 30.000 to 35.000 years ago are, with the world-wide discoveries made in recent years, increasingly becoming questionable. Thus also the latest discovery of perforated bones in Slovenia, made in 1995 at Divje babe I above the river Idrijca under Šebrelje, speak in favour of expanding the time limits of man's cultural history, and dates the bone pipes into a period around 45.000 years before the present. The first assumptions about the Paleolithic hunters, which have already to an extent managed to become anchored in our cultural conscience, refereed to the lower jawbones (mandibulae) of cave bears with one or with several holes (Potočka zijal ka- 8, Mokriška jama - 7, in an unknown Karst cave - 1, and in Betalov spodmol - 1), only another three cases were found in Croatia. A large number of mandibulae was destroyed during the World War II. Among them the greatest attention has been paid to the right jawbone with three, or respect-lively four holes from Potočka zijalka. The holes made by man have seemingly smooth edges and a fairly regular round shape. Their position is likewise non-negligible: mostly they are moved away from the epiphysis to the diaphisis, and on the jawabones these instruments are verified as such by the holes in the wail above the mandibular canal (and not beside it), although there exists also the possibility that in hollowed-out tubes and canals "natural holes" come up when in the course of time the bone compact has been damaged and got decayed. The formation of holes as merely a fruit of man's endeavour to make hollow bones sound-forming is, of course, not a criterion. But where the holes are a more likely artifact, there also the perforated fossil bones of sound-forming forms prove to be more reliable sound-producing instruments or rather consciously manufactured instruments. The sharp edges of the holes are necessary only in cases of oral mountpieces, or otherwise they may be of irregular shapes. The term bone flute is for numerous Palaeolithic pipes insufficiently clear and determinate, as they mostly do not belong to the type of the transverse flute or the beaked one, but rather to the end-blown pipes, to pipes either covered with one or several epiphyses, or to wholly closed pipes. This kind of pipe types from the older cultures (also Stone Age ones) are to be found up to the beginning of the 20ieth century in folk traditions all over the world, in wholly historic or prehistoric forms and variants. Among the earliest paleolythic instruments belong whistling pipes with one or several holes of the finger knuckle of animals with even number of fingers (raindeer, steinbock) and beasts (cave bear), known from the Mousterian period onwards and which are still current as folk instruments in Europe, Asia, South America to this day. Unfortunately our only specimen of this kind from Potočka zijalka is destroyed, but a fragment with three holes from the Mesolithic period has remained preserved. The mandibles which could have been pipes belong among fossil remains of young or grown-up specimens of the cave bear. They lack the tine (ramus mandibulae) as far as the mouth opening (the ingressive jaw opening / foramna mandibulae), and on the inner (lingual) side they have a perforated wall over the mandibulary (nervous) canal. Pipes from bears' jawbones are a Slovene speciality and are a natural musical instrument! The hollow mandibular canal is the natural tune of the instrument, the foramen manibulae (a little hole in the jawbone's opening) is the natural mouthpiece (notch) with sharply polished edges in the form of the letter V. Each mandible, which has a truncated tine permitting the blower to reach the jawbone opening and to blow into the canal, is already a musical instrument, an end-blow flute, which produces two tones as the bone has its own natural hole, that is a beard opening (foramen mentale) of oval shape in the bone compact under the diastema (the interdental space between the canine and the premolar). Each subsequent hole increases the sound opportunities for another two tones. The reconstructed would-be pipe from Potočka zijalka (the right jawbone with three holes) produced a very beautiful and clear sound in seven different pitches (two fingerings produced the same note). Sounds have been evoked also from the fossil bones in Mokriška jama, from the jawbones and fragments of tube-like bones (femurs). If the tine of the jawbone is not truncated, the bone may sound as an instrument giving a natural sequence of partial tones (up to 4 aliquots) - in that case the holes in the canal do not affect the sound. There are many fossil examples of that kind. Accordingly the question comes up: if and when did man start to use man's mandibles as sound instruments or instruments producing natural sound? Were they discovered as early as by the Neanderthal predecessor? In the Mid-Paleolithic or even earlier? Did anything discovered incidentally (when sucking the marrow) become consciously discovered, produced, and used? Paleolithic pipes made of long tube - like bones confirm the possibility of several types of instruments: a type where one of the two epiphyses of the pipe is stopped by a natural nucleus of spongy material, in which there is a slit (end-blown pipe) with 1-5 holes; a type where at the end of one of the two epiphyses of the naturally transverse pipe is stopped by the mouthpiece at the epiphysis and has 1-4 holes; further on, a type of beaked pipe - maybe with the ends evenly cut off - with mouthpiece notches of various forms; and the type of a pipe having epiphyses at both ends and the surrounding bone marrow of the naturally closed pipe. Most common are pipes with two to three holes. The first two types have also one to two holes for the thumb. For the most part they are of the type for playing basic tones, where the blowing through of part tones is almost impossible. The example found in Divje babe I can confirm the above typology of paleolithic pipes. The original undamaged pipe could be found in almost all the forms enumerated. And possibly in some other one, not known to us. Nevertheless, all the paleolithic pipes currently known are made of long tube-like bones, today open at both ends (damaged, bitten off, broken off?), and folk pipes made of bone belonging to various cultural traditions are to be found today in almost all of the specified forms. Or were the fossil examples of musical instruments used by man quite differently, in a wholly specific, for us inconceivable way which because also of the damages and vastly distant past and because of insufficient understanding of the way of living and thinking, of creativeness we simply cannot find out. Did our ancestor putty up the bone tube also with clay, resin, closed off the end with skin (membrane) or a wooden plug, or did he achieve various pitches also with the closing and the opening of the tube by hand or by finger, similarly as we are taught also by musical traditions of various peoples on all the Continents, where bone pipes are still known today? Findings from the Paleolithic and Mesozoic have in addition to finger-knuckled whistling pipes confirmed the making of musical instruments both from the bear's thighbones (femurs) and shinbones (tibias) as well as from the hollow bones of birds (eagle, swan). Musical instruments of Ancient Greece, of the Roman Empire as well as mediaeval findings right up to the testimony of the folk traditions of the last centuries confirm the existence of pipes from whole shinbones of diaphyses of the sheep, goat, dog, eagle and swan, horse, pelican, stag, tapir, jaguar, and even of man; further on from the bones of albatross, numerous bone pipes mostly from the bones of birds, fox, swine, cattle, duck, goose, sea gull, and roe deer. Bone types from earlier cultures are to be found in folk traditions in wholly historic or prehistoric forms as well as in variants. Do bone pipes belong among the archetypes of man's creative ideas which reach beyond the limitation of time and place? Did they serve to the Ice Age predecessor for scaring and attracting beasts, for the simple giving of signals, or for the needs that would today be designated as musical ones? According to reports bone pipes started to disappear from musical practice both in Europe as well as in North and South America towards the end of the previous century. While there is no evidence of contemporary bone pipes from the ethnic territory of today (or we might have overlooked them or started with excavations too late?), there have been dug up a great many archeological findings from prehistoric times also on Slovene soil which deserve a detailed examination and evaluation.


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How to Cite
Omerzel-TerlepM. (1997). Paleolithic Art and Philosophy of the First Sound. Musicological Annual, 33(1), 23-47.