New research has revealed that approximately 12,000 years ago, humans in northern Israel transformed the bones of small birds into musical instruments that imitated the songs of specific avian species.
Unearthed at the Eynan (Ain Mallaha) archaeological site, which has been under excavation by a Franco-Israeli team since 1955, seven miniature flutes crafted from the wing bones of prehistoric birds shed light on a forgotten chapter in human musical heritage.
The archaeologists were particularly fascinated by the size of these instruments, as outlined in their study published in the Nature Science Report journal.
The flutes, with a length of 63.4 mm and a diameter of approximately 4 mm, provide valuable insights into the musical practices of the Late Natufian culture.
According to the researchers, the small flutes likely served various purposes such as creating music, attracting birds, or facilitating communication over short distances.
To explore this further, the research team made replicas of the fragile original flutes and discovered that they emitted high-pitched trills resembling the calls of birds of prey.
Due to their size, these flutes produced a high-pitched sound, which experts believe imitated the vocalizations of ancient birds of prey in the region.
Playing the flute would have required training and manual dexterity due to its small dimensions. Additionally, the closely spaced holes on the flute would have demanded a certain level of agility to master the instrument.
The Natufian culture, which existed in the Levant region approximately 15,000 to 11,700 years ago, played a significant role in the transition from Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies to fully-developed agricultural economies during the Neolithic era.
12,000-year-old flutes discovered in northern Israel
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1. Credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
2. Credit: Yoli Shwartz Israel Antiquities Authority
3. Credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
4. Credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun
Forensic anthropologist Tal Simmons from Virginia Commonwealth University, who identified the bird species used, explained that this period marked the emergence of settled communities engaged in farming and animal domestication.
The recently discovered instruments, dating back 12,000 years, are exceedingly rare, as there is limited knowledge about musical practices during the Neolithic period.
This new finding adds to our understanding of the evolution of music, uncovering a previously unexplored category of sound-producing instruments that were present in the acoustic environment of the Paleolithic era, capable of producing artificial sounds resembling those found in nature.
More information: Davin et al. 2023. Bone aerophones from Eynan-Mallaha (Israel) indicate imitation of raptor calls by the last hunter-gatherers in the Levant. Sci Rep 13, 8709; doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-35700-9