Researchers have found 12,000-year-old flutes made from bird bones

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The first prehistoric wind instruments found in the Levant

Seven aerophones were found in Einan Mallah. Credit: © Laurent Davin

A team of researchers, including a Virginia Commonwealth University professor, discovered rare prehistoric tools made from bird bones dating back more than 12,000 years, according to findings published in the journal Friday. Scientific reports.

Seven flutes, or aerophones, found at Einan Mallaha in northern Israel belong to the Natufians, who lived between 13,000 and 9,700 BC and were some of the last hunter-gatherers known in the Levant or Near Eastern region. at that time.

Tal Simmons, Ph.D., is a professor and co-author in the Department of Forensic Science in VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences. Scientific reports 1112 bones of 59 species of birds found in the paper were identified. His research helped the group understand what time of year the nomadic hunter-gatherers lived and which species’ bones were most common.

“While bone ‘flutes’ or ‘aerophones’ are known from other archaeological sites around the world, they are extremely rare and have been found mainly in Europe. These were first identified in the Middle East and are approximately 12,000 years old. years ago,” Simmons said. “Whistles make sounds of other birds of prey that hunt there.”

Researchers have found 12,000-year-old flutes made from bird bones

One of seven small waterfowl bone aerophones found in the late Natufian site of Einan-Mallaha, which can be described as a toothed flute (Andean quena type). Detail of the playing holes (in green), markings (in blue), mouthpiece, distal part and remains of red ocher that decorated the instrument. Credit: Davin et al., 2023

The discovery marks the first discovery of a prehistoric sounding instrument in the Middle East, and it is the oldest known bird imitation of any ancient civilization.

One aerophone is completely intact, complete with finger holes and mouthpiece. When played, the flute sounds like a raptor call, or as Simmons puts it, “a loud ‘squealing’ call, like a small bird of prey in a tree.”

“All seven birds were deliberately carved into the long bones of two species of birds, the Eurasian plover and the Eurasian plover, by incising and rotary cutting with small stone knives. They all show microscopic use wear that indicates they have been used or played with,” Simmons said. “They are truly unique, for the sound they make is very similar to that of the two peculiar birds of prey hunted by the people inhabiting the place where they are found, namely, the sparrow and the sparrow.’

Researchers believe that aerophones may have been used to make music for hunting, communication, or spiritual practice.

Researchers have found 12,000-year-old flutes made from bird bones

A: Distribution map of Late Natufian sites in the Levant 12,000 years ago. B: Detail of the Einan-Mallaha position in the Hula Valley of northern Israel. Credit: Davin et al., 2023

“Because these are some of the earliest aerophones, it sheds light on the role of music in Natufian culture and perhaps the relationship of Natufian peoples with birds of prey,” Simmons said.

“It can be like a duck call – trying to attract birds so they can be caught. However, it may be an attempt to communicate or communicate spiritually with birds of prey; they were important to Natufian—and earlier—cultures in the Levant, as evidenced by the disproportionate number of predator claws in archaeological bird bone assemblages. These may have been worn by prehistoric people as ritual ‘jewellery’ and may even have been ‘totem’ animals.’

The aerophones are currently housed in the zoological collections of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on the Givat Ram campus.

More information:
Laurent Davin et al., bone aerophones from Einan Mallah, Israel, show that late hunter-gatherers in the Levant imitated the calls of predators, Scientific reports (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-35700-9

Provided by Virginia Commonwealth University

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