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Bone ‘aerophones’ or flutes from Eynan-Mallaha. Source: Laurent Davin et al/ Nature

Using These 12,000-Year-Old Flutes, Did Humans Speak With Raptors?


An archaeological site in Israel was excavated in the 1950’s, but somehow, a collection of 12,000-year-old bone flutes didn’t surface. Last year a team of researchers returned to excavate the site again, and this time recovered the musical instruments which are being heralded as “some of the oldest in the world.” Furthermore, when played, the flutes make the sounds of specific birds of prey.

Probing The Prehistoric World of Flutes

Before we kick off, the oldest flute in the world is the Neanderthal flute discovered in the Divje Babe cave, in Slovenia. Dating back to approximately 60,000-year-ago, this flute was made from the femur bones of a cave bear. And while the flutes recently discovered in Israel date back a comparatively mere 12,000 years, they make bird sounds when played, and open a storehouse of archaeological data about acoustics in ancient societies at the dawn of farming.

The collection of prehistoric flutes was recovered from the Eynan-Mallaha (also known as Ain Mallaha) archaeological site, located in the Einan Valley, near the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee, in northern Israel. It is known that this site was occupied by the Natufian culture that thrived in the Levant region (modern-day Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Lebanon) between approximately 12,500 and 9,500 BC.

Carefully Crafted, Painted Red, And Worn

According to a new study published Friday (June 9) in the journal Scientific Reports, the Natufians rank among the very first sedentary hunter-gatherer societies. Surviving on a range of wild resources, including wild cereals and game animals, the Natufian culture were masters of microlithic tool production with sophisticated techniques for hunting, fishing, propagating wild plants and gathering resources. Now, it turns out that music, or at least making animal sounds, was central to Natufian culture.

The researchers write that they discovered “more than half a dozen” flutes among a hoard of 1,100 bird bones. The new study illustrates how the ancient artisans carved the flutes from the bones “of small waterfowl,” and says only one of the flutes was completely intact: measuring less than 65 millimeters (2.6 inches) in length, according to the study.

The study lead author Laurent Davin, a postdoctoral fellow of archaeology at the French Research Center in Jerusalem, told Live Science that the instruments are probably "some of the smallest prehistoric sound instruments known today.” Furthermore, the researchers identified signs of usage, suggesting the instruments were worn, and residues of ocher led to speculations that the flutes were probably painted red.

Resurrecting Ancient Bird Calls

Using computer software, the researchers created a replica flute. When played, the spectral analysis of the created sounds was analyzed and the result was “a high-pitched sound.” After comparative analysis, it was noted that the sound was similar to the calls of the Eurasian sparrowhawks (Accipiter nisus). Furthermore, the sound was also associated with that of the common kestrels (Falco tinnunculus.)

Researchers theorize that the flutes were used to ‘call’ sparrowhawks and kestrels like these in ancient times. (Sander Meertins /Adobe Stock)

Researchers theorize that the flutes were used to ‘call’ sparrowhawks and kestrels like these in ancient times. (Sander Meertins /Adobe Stock)

The paper says the Natufians were “methodical about selecting these bones in particular, since larger ones would have produced deeper sounds,” unlike birds of prey. According to the study, this observation suggests the flutes were specifically made to replicate falcon sounds. Dr. Davin said this demonstrates “the [Natufians] had knowledge of acoustics.” Furthermore, Davin said it indicates that there were “probably other instruments made of perishable materials." The researcher told Live Science that it was “very moving” hearing the sound that Natufians made 12,000 years ago.

Prehistoric Communications With Animals?

So what then were the flutes used for? The team of archaeologists concluded that the Natufians likely “used the aerophones while hunting, to create music, and even to communicate with the birds.” Dr. Davin added that this collection of instruments 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”.

The study says the new discoveries also inform about “the inventiveness and knowledge of acoustics of the Natufians, as well as their technical precision.” But perhaps the most revealing find was that Natufians “possibly communicated with raptors,” and integrated the bird calls into their music.

Top image: Bone ‘aerophones’ or flutes from Eynan-Mallaha. Source: Laurent Davin et al/ Nature

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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