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No. 111: May-Jun 1997

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Ancient Entertainments

Neanderthal musicmakers, The Neanderthals have long been portrayed as insensitive and brutish. But when the remains of flowers were found at Shanidar, a Neanderthal grave site in Iraq, archeologists mellowed a bit in their assessments. Now, there is evidence that those supposed lowbrows were also musicians. In 1996, in a Slovenian cave, researchers discovered a flute crafted from the thigh bone of a cave bear. Stone tools of Neanderthal manufacture were found nearby. The flute is dated between 43,000 and 82,000 years old and is the oldest-known, deliberately manufactured musical instrument ever found.

(Folger, Tim, and Menon, Shanti; "Strong Bones, and Thus Dim-Witted? Or Much Like Us?" Discover, 18:32, January 1997.)

Really stale chewing gum! The journal Nature recently printed the photograph of a tooth-marked wad of chewing gum said to be 6,500 years old. This particular wad came from a Swedish bog, but similar wads have been found all over Northern Europe. Not having access to South American chicle, ancient confectioners made the gum from birch bark. Birch bark was also the source of the tar primitive humans used for gluing and waterproofing.

E. Aveling, University of Bradford, has concocted a fresh batch of birchbark gum for a taste test. (No one volunteered to try the "old" stuff!) She reported that it is neither pleasant nor unpleasant, but neither are modern-day Moxie and Vegamite. The tooth impressions on the ancient gum wads prove that they were chewed mainly by children and teenagers -- probably to annoy their parents.

(Battersby, Stephen; "Plus C'est le Meme Chews," Nature, 385:679. 1997.)

Comment. So far there is no evidence to prove that the ancient gum-makers had progressed to the more sophisticated level of bubble-gum manufacture.

Wad of ancient birch-bark chewing gum A not-too-appetizing wad of ancient birch-bark chewing gum. (From Nature).

From Science Frontiers #111, MAY-JUN 1997. 1997-2000 William R. Corliss