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12,000-Year-Old Flutes Carved of Bone Found in Israel

prehistoric flute
Ancient flutes carved of bone in Israel shed light on the musical prowess of Natufians, the last hunter-gatherers in the Levant. Credit: Yoli Shwartz / Israel Antiquities Authority

A remarkable discovery has been made by archaeologists at a historical location in Israel. They have unearthed a fascinating collection of flutes carved of bone that date back 12,000 years. These extraordinary musical instruments were carefully crafted from the bones of birds.

What makes them even more captivating is that when played, they produce sounds that imitate the distinctive calls of certain birds of prey.

This significant finding was made at a site called Eynan-Mallaha, also known as Ain Mallaha. It is an ancient place that was once inhabited by a group of people known as the Natufians.

These Natufians were the final remnants of a culture that relied on hunting and gathering for sustenance. They lived in the Levant, a region encompassing the lands surrounding the eastern Mediterranean.

Discovery of flutes carved of bone

Despite years of thorough exploration by researchers since its initial discovery in the 1950s, archaeologists were surprised when they stumbled upon a remarkable find at the site.

Among a collection of 1,100 bird bones, scattered in an unexpected manner, they discovered a number of flutes. Astonishingly, these flutes were meticulously crafted from the bones of small waterfowl.

Upon closer examination, it was revealed that more than half a dozen flutes had been unearthed. However, only a single flute remained completely intact. This extraordinary artifact measured less than 2.6 inches (65 millimeters) in length, as stated by the researchers.

According to Laurent Davin, the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral fellow of archaeology at the French Research Center in Jerusalem, “They are probably some of the smallest prehistoric sound instruments known today.”

“Because of residues of ocher, we know that they were probably red painted. Because of the use-wear we think they might have been attached to a string and worn.”

Sound of the flutes

When these flutes were played, they emitted a distinct high-pitched sound reminiscent of the calls produced by Eurasian sparrowhawks (Accipiter nisus) and common kestrels (Falco tinnunculus), which belong to the falcon family.

It appears that the Natufians, with their meticulous approach, deliberately chose these specific bird bones because larger bones would have resulted in deeper tones.

The careful selection of bird bones by the Natufians indicates their keen understanding of acoustics and their intentional effort to mimic the sounds of these birds of prey. By crafting flutes from the bones of smaller avian species, they were able to achieve the desired higher pitches in their musical creations.

“The Natufians chose those small bones because they wanted the sound to be like this in order to imitate falcon sounds,” Davin said. “This demonstrates their knowledge of acoustics and indicates that there were probably other instruments made of perishable materials.”

Recreation of sounds

In order to experience the sounds firsthand, the researchers employed computer software to recreate the flutes carved of bone digitally. They meticulously analyzed the spectral characteristics of the sounds until they achieved a resemblance to the calls of falcons, as outlined in the study.

Laurent Davin expressed a deeply moving experience upon playing the replica flute and hearing the same sounds that resonated 12,000 years ago in the time of the Natufians. The ability to connect with the past through music brought forth a profound emotional response.

Archaeologists speculate on the various purposes these ancient flutes might have served for the Natufians. It is believed that these aerophones were possibly used during hunting expeditions, as a means of creating music, or even as a form of communication with birds.

The Natufians held birds in high regard, as evidenced by the abundance of ornaments crafted from bird talons discovered at the site, as mentioned in the statement.

According to Davin, “These artifacts are really important because they are the only sound instruments clearly identified in the prehistory of the whole Levant and the oldest sound instruments imitating bird calls in the world.”

Oldest musical instruments in the world

While the recently unearthed flutes carved of bone are indeed fascinating, they do not hold the distinction of being the oldest musical instruments in the world. The honor of that title belongs to a Neanderthal flute that predates them by a considerable margin.

This ancient flute, estimated to be around 60,000 years old, was found nestled within a cave in Slovenia, as documented by the National Museum of Slovenia.

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