Archaeologists uncover tiny 12,000-year-old flutes which mimic the piercing calls of prehistoric birds

12 June 2023, 14:06

This is what a 12,000-year-old bone flute may have sounded like
This is what a 12,000-year-old bone flute may have sounded like. Picture: Yoli Shwartz Israel Antiquities Authority

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

These tiny flutes could be one of the most important discoveries in the history of musical instrument production...

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Seven miniature flutes carved from the wing bones of prehistoric birds have been discovered in Northern Israel – and they uncover a long-lost piece of humans’ musical history.

The 12,000-year-old instruments are incredibly rare, as not much is known about music-making from this time (the Neolithic period).

Archaeologists studying the newly discovered flutes were particularly intrigued by the size of the instruments. According to their findings, published in the Nature Science Report journal, the flutes measured a length of 63.4 mm and a diameter of about 4 mm.

The size of the flute would have required a certain amount of training and a level of dexterity from its player. The close proximity of the flutes’ holes would also have required a certain agility to master the instrument.

Due to the instrument’s size, the flute produces a high-pitched sound, which scientists suggest imitated the sounds of prehistoric birds of prey in the area. Listen below to the sound of a replica...

Read more: Hear the world’s oldest instrument, the 50,000-year-old Neanderthal flute

This is what a 12,000-year-old bone flute may have sounded like | Science News

“One of the flutes was discovered complete,” lead researchers Dr Laurent Davin and Dr Hamoudi Khalaily said in a press release. “So far as is known, it is the only one in the world in this state of preservation.

“The replica [heard above] produces the same sounds that the hunter-gatherers may have made 12,000 years ago.”

The seven flutes were discovered in Eynan (in Arabic: Ain Mallaha) one of the settlements of the Natufian culture, dating around 12,500 BC - 9,500 BC.

The Natufians were hunter-gatherers and were one of the first populations in human history to settle in one area. The Eynan settlement is found in the Huleh Valley, which today is a major stopover for migrating birds.

The archaeologists, however, are unsure whether these miniature flutes would have been used solely for hunting the birds that the flutes sounded like, or for general music-making.

The researchers explained that the flutes could have been used to attract birds of prey to the hunters, which could then have been shot down. Dr Khalaily confirmed, “If the flutes were used for hunting, then this is the earliest evidence of the use of sound in hunting.”

However, across multiple cultures around the world, birdlike sounds have held high symbolic value in traditional music and dance. Like classical music, which has also long drawn on birdsong as inspiration, these ancient flutes could have been used in traditional Natufian songs.

Read more: 13 pieces of classical music inspired by birdsong

Researchers say the sizing of the flute’s holes “might have been done on purpose to influence the airflow”
Researchers say the sizing of the flute’s holes “might have been done on purpose to influence the airflow”. Picture: Yoli Shwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority

Were the Natufians the first example of master instrument makers?

While the flutes, pictured above, produce a sound similar to prehistoric birds of prey, such as the common kestrel and the sparrowhawk, the instruments themselves were made out of a different type of bird.

The flutes are made out of the wing bones of two different types of smaller birds, which scientists have identified as the Eurasian teal (a common type of duck) and Eurasian coot (a common coot). Instead of using just one type of wing bone, the Natufians chose a range of different bones, suggesting they were looking for a certain sound.

“The Natufians from Eynan-Mallaha hunted other, larger species... thus, selecting short and narrow bird bones as blanks for wind instruments appears to be more of a deliberate choice rather than a constraint of availability,” Dr Davin and Dr Khalaily revealed in their findings.

“Given that the length and diameter of the bird bone influence the sound production it seems that the choice is less about the species used than the sound produced by these bones whose air pipe is smaller.”

A modern Eurasian teal found in Norfolk, UK
A modern Eurasian teal found in Norfolk, UK. Picture: Alamy

The researchers argue that the unequal sizing of the holes on the instrument also “might have been done on purpose to influence the airflow”.

The instrument’s hole sizings, along with the choice of bird bone, seem to reveal the Natufians’ “search for varied sound production”.

The scientific paper concludes that this evidence of the acoustic phenomenon of sound manipulation marks a “significant change in the history of humankind”, not only in the cultural development during the Neolithic period but within the history of music and instrument production itself.