Neanderthal Musical Instruments Included Tusk-Tuba, Bladder-Bagpipe, and "Xylobone"

The Neander Valley was, apparently, alive with the sound of music.

By Tim Folger|Tuesday, April 01, 1997

The most significant discovery in Oscar Todkopf’s career was entirely serendipitous. Last April, the Hindenburg University paleontologist was hiking in Germany’s Neander Valley when he tripped over something on a trail. Some quick digging exposed the obstacle as the tip of a mastodon tusk. But it wasn’t until a few weeks later when the entire tusk was unearthed and dated that Todkopf realized the magnitude of his find. The tusk, he believes, was a Neanderthal musical instrument. Todkopf calls it a "Neanderthal tuba." Like the bone flute discovered in Slovenia last year, the 50,000-year-old tuba predates the presence of anatomically modern humans in Europe.

Sixteen carefully aligned holes dot the surface of the six-foot-long tusk. "I think a Neanderthal master craftsman must have used a stone awl to hollow out the tusk and to punch the holes," says Todkopf. The number of holes, he says, suggests that Neanderthals used an octave scale.

Todkopf also uncovered the remains of what appear to be at least three other instruments. One resembles a bagpipe. Although the bag part disintegrated long ago, it left a protein stain in the rock. Analysis suggests it was probably fashioned from the bladder of some large animal, perhaps a woolly rhinoceros, and was at one time attached to some long, thin bones found arrayed around the impression. Todkopf also found a delicate bone triangle and a collection of hollowed-out bones of various lengths.

"I think they were part of an instrument similar to a xylophone—I like to call it a 'xylobone,'" says Todkopf. But a colleague thinks Neanderthals hung the bones at cave entrances like big wind chimes. As for the bagpipes, well, it doesn’t surprise me that we have Neanderthals to thank for them. Todkopf believes they played the pipes with their noses. The bones found near the bladder stain are tipped with wooden plugs with hollow centers. "The plugs," says Todkopf, "fit perfectly into the sinus cavities of a Neanderthal skull found at the site. These fellows had nasal cavities as big as beer halls."

While digging out the instruments, Todkopf uncovered the entrance to a cave and another major find: the first example of Neanderthal cave painting. Fittingly, the paintings show musicians alongside colored dots in groups of three, which Todkopf suspects are musical notation. "Maybe what we have here with the triplet notation is the origin of oom-pah-pah!"

Todkopf theorizes that the Neanderthals’ fondness for music may explain why they vanished some 30,000 years ago. "Maybe their music scared away all the game. They would have produced an awful racket oom-pah-pahing all over the place. The Neander Valley was alive with the sound of music."

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