Prehistoric hunter-gatherers used carved bone flutes
Some 12,000 years ago, at one of the last Natufian sites in Israel, flute music was all the rage, bone flute music to be precise. According to a study published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports, the people of Eynan-Mallaha in the Hula Valley used carved bone flutes to imitate the sound of predatory birds. Whether they were used for the first duck calls, as a way to communicate, or simply for music, these tiny objects are by far the oldest-known instruments in the Middle East.
The last hunter-gatherers in the Levant, the Natufians (c. 13,000–9,700 BCE), were also the first group to adopt a sedentary lifestyle. Now, they are also the earliest known group in the region to have made music, or at least something like music. Excavated at the site of Eynan-Mallaha in northern Israel, seven tiny wing bones—dated to around 12,000 years ago—are all the evidence we have of this ancient practice.
The bones, which all belong to small duck-like waterfowl known as the Eurasian coot and teal, all bear unmistakable signs of craftsmanship, with finger holes bored into their sides and one of their ends carved into a mouthpiece. The bone flutes were noticed while researchers analyzed over 1,000 bird bones discovered at Eynan-Mallaha, a site where bird hunting supplied a large portion of the daily diet. Carrying out micro-CT scans on the bones, an international team analyzed the carefully made holes and determined they were carved to allow a person’s fingers to cover them. All seven flutes had noticeable wear patterns, demonstrating that they had seen considerable use. In addition to the holes, the flutes had small traces of red ochre, which may have been for decorative purposes.
Creating reproductions of the flutes from similarly sized bird bones, the team studied how they were played and the range of sounds they could produce. They discovered that they closely mimicked the sounds of predatory birds, specifically the Eurasian Sparrowhawk and the Common Kestrel, both of which are still common in the Hula Valley at various times of the year. “The replicas produce the same sounds that the hunter-gatherers may have made 12,000 years ago,” said Laurent Davin and Hamoudi Khalaily, two of the study’s authors. “One of the flutes was discovered complete. So far as is known it is the only one in the world in this state of preservation.”
Since the bones of smaller birds, which break far more easily when worked, were needed to produce such a sound, the team suggests that this sound was sought on purpose. What that purpose was, however, is not certain.
One theory is that the bone flutes were used in hunting, specifically to either scare prey birds into the air so they could be captured or to attract the birds by mimicking their sounds. The talons of various birds of prey were used as tools and ornaments in prehistoric cultures. According to Khalaily, “If the flutes were used for hunting, then this is the earliest evidence of the use of sound in hunting. This discovery provides important new information on hunting methods and supplements the various prehistorical tools that mark the start of the transition to agriculture and the cultivation of plants and animals in the southern Levant.”
Another possible purpose of the bone flutes, however, was for creating music in social or cultic settings. In many other cultures where birds play an important role in daily life, bird calling often becomes part of the musical repertoire. To this day, the Hula Valley is an important passageway for birds migrating between Europe and Africa. It is estimated that over 500 million birds pass through the valley each year. Although Eynan-Mallaha features several permanent stone dwellings, the inhabitants were still hunter-gatherers who would have relied on the annual bird migrations as well as the birds that call the lush valley home year around. As such, birds would have played an important role within both the society and its music.
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