In 1996 Mira Omerzel-Terlep reported that a bone fragment excavated at the Divje Babe I cave site in Slovenia is considered to be the oldest man-made flute, dating from 45,000 years ago (“Koščene piščali: Pričetek slovenske, evropske in svetovne inštrumentalne glasbene zgodovine” [Bone whistles: Origins of the Slovenian, European, and world history of instrumental music], Etnolog: Glasnik Slovenskega Etnografskega Muzeja/Bulletin of the Slovene Ethnographic Museum VI, pp. 235–294). Further studies sought to demonstrate that the fragment had originally belonged to an instrument capable of producing a diatonic scale.
Other researchers were skeptical, though, and in 1998 Paola Villa et al. tried to put the speculation to rest, showing that the holes in the bone were the results of gnawing by animals (“A Middle Paleolithic origin of music? Using cave-bear bone accumulations to assess the Divje Babe I bone ‘flute’”, Antiquity LXXII/275 [March], pp. 65–79).
The argument has not abated. In 2002 a pair of essays staking out the opposing camps was issued in Archäologie früher Klangerzeugung und Tonordnung/The archaeology of sound origin and organization; Musikarchäologie in der Ägäis und Anatolien/Music archaeology in the Aegean and Anatolia (Rahden: Leidorf); April Nowell states that the results of taphonomic testing offered no viable proof that the bone fragment was an instrument (“Is a cave bear bone from Divje Babe, Slovenia, a Neanderthal flute?” pp. 69–81) while Robert Fink presents research supports the theory that it was (“The Neanderthal flute and origin of the scale: Fang or flint? A response” pp. 83–87).
More recently, an exhaustive study by Cajus G. Diedrich of Paleo-Logic, Independent Institute of Geosciences, ends with the conclusion that “The ‘cave bear cub femora with holes’ are, in all cases, neither instruments nor human made at all” (Royal Society Open Science, 2 : 140022; the paper can be read in full here).
Still, the controversy is alive and thriving on the Internet.
Below, Ljuben Dimkaroski performs on a reconstruction of the alleged original bone flute.