25 Days of Skeletal Facts: Day 3 – The Tibia

Right tibia, anterior (left) and posterior views, Credit to anatomy-medicine.com

After discussing the fibula as the non-weight bearing bone of the leg, it’s time to talk tibia. The tibia is the larger bone in your leg that articulates with the femur (your thigh bone) at your knee and also forms the ankle joint. Known as the shin bone, the anterior crest of the tibia is not covered by muscle, lying just below your skin and subcutaneous fat. The tibia is wider at the proximal (knee) end, triangularly shaped in cross section, and then tapers toward the distal (ankle) end. The medial malleolus at the end of the tibia is the knob of bone you can palpate on the inside of your ankle.

The tibia is named for the Latin word for flute, and as we will see, musical instruments were carved into these bones at least from the medieval times.

The field of archaeomusicology (how cool is that) explores the evidence for music in the archaeological record and one such piece of evidence is the bone flute. While the first flutes were likely made of reed, one of the most commonly surviving flutes archaeologically is one made of bone. In a study of over one hundred bone flutes from medieval England, Dr. Helen Leaf documents that most of the flutes made from mammalian bone are sourced from the tibia, usually a sheep’s tibia. A flute fashioned from a sheep tibia was also discovered in Sweden dating to the 13th-14th century (Lund 1985). The earliest bone flutes were sourced from bird arm bones, since avian bones are already hollow. The Geissenkloesterle Cave in Germany is the site of the discovery for the oldest known bone flute, carved out of the radius (a forearm bone) of a vulture (Conrad et al. 2009). Six bone flutes made of red-crowned crane ulna (the other forearm bone) dating from 7,000 to 9,000 years ago found in Jiahu, China hold the distinction of being the oldest playable instruments; their condition is so good that sound and playability tests can be performed directly on these archaeological finds (Fader 2018).

Medieval bone flutes carved from sheep tibia, excavated in Exeter

In archaeomusicology controversies, what has been called the oldest bone flute in the world, dating to around 45,000 years ago and found in a cave with Neanderthal tools, may just be the result of hyena bite and crush marks. The flute is made from a juvenile cave bear femur but Diedrich (2015) argues that the pattern of holes may represent hyena scavenging. Juvenile bones are more pliable so it is possible hyena bite marks did not completely break through the bone, however, replicas of this artifact have produced different pitches (Abbassi 2015). Here is where intention is difficult to contend with archaeologially – while a hyena may have produced the pattern of breaks/holes in the bone it does not mean it was not used as a flute by Neanderthals. Does the maker matter?

That’s all for the tibia today – tomorrow we will contend with the other favorite for bone flutes, the femur.


The Tibia. Teach Me Anatomy Series. 2020

Development of the Flute from Pre-history to Modern Days. Fader, Leah. 2018

Holes in a Bone: Flute or Fluke? Abbassi, Jennifer. Discover Magazine. 2015

‘Neanderthal bone flutes’: simply products of Ice Age spotted hyena scavenging activities on cave bear cubs in European cave bear dens. Diedrich, Cajus. The Royal Society. 2015

New flutes document the earliest musical tradition in southwestern Germany. Conrad et al. Nature. 2009

Bone Flute is Oldest Instrument, Study Says. Owen, James. National Geographic. 24 June 2009

English Medieval Bone Flutes – a Brief Introduction. Leaf, Helen. The Galpin Society Journal. May 2006

Bone Flutes in Västergötland, Sweden. Finds and Traditions. A Music-Archaeological Study. Lund, Cajsa. Acta Musicologica. 1985

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