In the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, in the flutes case 85, there resides a whistle made from the phalangeal bone of a reindeer (1909.4.1). With a prehistory of some 15,000 years it is probably the oldest musical artefact in the collection. It was found in a cave in Laugerie Basse, Les Eyzies, Dordogne, in France, by Edouard Lartet and Henry Christy in 1863 and donated by Henry Balfour in 1909. Lartet (1801-71) was a French palaeontologist who with the English ethnologist Henry Christy (1810-65) made important discoveries in the La Madeleine cave. Christy’s funding contributed to the discovery of Cro-Magnon man in 1868. Culturally the whistle is Magdalenian from the Upper Palaeolithic of circa 15,000 to 10,000 BC.
Reindeer phalanges (foot bones with apparently drilled holes have been excavated from many Middle Palaeolithic sites in Europe (e.g., La Quina Combe Grenal, Dordogne) which are of the Neandertal Mousterian (circa 70,000 to 15,000 BC) culture. These bones were interpreted early as whistles by Lartet and Christy. Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) phalanges from Combe Grenal have also been described as the result of carnivore gnawing or chemical erosion.
These whistles may have been used as signalling devices, decoys, or musical instruments which, when cross blown, have a shrill penetrating sound. An aesthetic purpose can be deduced because often the punctures are uniformly placed. If these bones are whistles then they may be associated with assumed ritual practices and “…the shamanistic element which today can be shown to lie at the roots of so much primitive music.” (Megaw, 1960). Music has often accompanied sacred ritual of past times, especially as “…primitive melody is always the expression of an idea.” (Schneider, 1957). A non-aesthetic purpose of such whistles could have been to ward off evil spirits or hostile forces.
Even though there are still questions of ambiguity surrounding these ‘whistles’ they suggest that Neanderthals had aesthetic concepts and practices which were further developed by later Cro-Magnon populations. Moreover, even if the earliest whistles were not purposively made, there is nothing to prevent early hominids from utilising carnivore damaged bones as whistles. Carnivore damage leaves a jagged edge hole whereas the museum specimen has a rounded hole that looks purpose made. It would appear that Lartet and Christy, and Balfour, were quite correct and this little bone whistle really is the oldest musical instrument in the Pitt Rivers Museum.
Lartet, E. & Christy, H. (1865-1875). Reliquae Acquitanicae
Megaw, J. V. S. (1960). Penny Whistles and Prehistory. Antiquity, XXXIV.
Chase, P. G. (2001). Punctured reindeer phalanges from the Mousterian of Combe Grenal (France). Arheoloski vesnik (52).
Schneider, M. (1957). New Oxford History of Music. 1 (2).
Stepanchuk, V. N. (1993). Prolom 11, a Middle Palaeolithic Cave Site in the Eastern Crimea. Proc. Prehist. Soc. 59.
First printed in the Newsletter of the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Museum, December, 2009.