Iain Morley at the University of Oxford, UK, who has studied the music created by modern hunter-gather groups, identifies another obstacle to finding the earliest musical instruments. In his book The Prehistory of Music, published last year, he emphasised the point that many traditional instruments are made from perishable materials that rot away relatively quickly. This means it may be very difficult to find the earliest objects used for making music, let alone establish whether Neanderthals made use of them.
But in a sense this doesn’t really matter. There is one musical instrument researchers can say with some confidence substantially predates 40,000 years – and it’s one that Neanderthals almost certainly had at their disposal. The human voice may have gained its full vocal range at least 530,000 years ago, suggesting several species of extinct human – including Neanderthals – had the potential to sing.