But some scholars point to a Neanderthal artifact known as the Divje Babe flute that was unearthed 28 years ago in a cave in northwestern Slovenia. That object, a young cave bear’s left thigh bone pierced by four spaced holes, is thought to date back at least 50,000 years. However, other scientists argue that the Divje Babe flute was simply the product of an Ice Age carnivore, possibly a spotted hyena, scavenging on a dead bear cub.
Hamoudi Khalaily of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who collaborated on the bird flute study, has said that if the Natufians used the aerophones to flush birds out of the marshes, the discovery would mark “the earliest evidence of the use of sound in hunting.” In other words, the miniature flutes could have produced Stone Age duck calls.
Natalie Munro, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, has an alternative hypothesis. “While we’re speculating, maybe the true purpose of the instruments was to communicate with a different animal altogether,” she said. Eynan-Mallaha was also home to a Natufian woman found buried with her hand resting on a puppy. The burial dates to 12,000 years ago and figures frequently in narratives of early dog domestication. “Maybe these bones and their high-pitched sounds were more akin to dog whistles,” Dr. Munro said. “They could have been used to communicate with early dogs or their wolf cousins.”
Considering the flute’s harsh tone, few scientists maintain that it was intended as a melodic tool. Still, as John James Audubon observed of a pair of American kestrels, “Side by side they sail, screaming aloud their love notes, which, if not musical, are doubtless at least delightful to the parties concerned.”