Archaeologists discover 12,000-year-old bone aerophones used by Natufians

A collection of seven prehistoric flutes are some of the oldest musical instruments in the world.
Sejal Sharma
12,000-year-old flutes
12,000-year-old flutes

Davin et al 

Ever since its discovery in the 1950s, researchers and archeologists have extensively excavated and investigated the region of Eynan-Mallah, home to one of the hundreds of Natufian settlements. Natufians were the first hunter-gatherers and the first to establish villages in the Levant, a region that spans the land around the eastern Mediterranean. 

And now, archaeologists have excavated seven aerophones, kind of like a flute, producing musical sounds when air is blown into them. The 12,000-year-old collection of aerophones is carved from bird bones. It is the largest assemblage of prehistoric sound-producing instruments found in their complete state in the Levant region.

Archaeologists discover 12,000-year-old bone aerophones used by Natufians
Bone aerophones from Eynan-Mallaha

The archaeologists who carried out this study can reveal that the aerophones were carved from duck bones, identified as the Eurasian teal (Anas crecca) and the Eurasian coot (Fulica atra). Four of the seven aerophones are within the size range of several small ducks identified at the site.

The choice to use the bones of small birds raises questions

The Natufians hunted larger species of birds, and the dimensions of the bone played a factor in sound production. Therefore, selecting short and narrow bird bones for wind instruments appears to be more of a deliberate choice than a constraint of availability, the archaeologists concluded. Choosing a small bone comes with consequences, as experiments have shown that the narrower the diameter of the bone is, the more difficult it is to play.

“We, therefore, believe that the Eynan-Mallaha aerophones were made to reproduce the calls of the valued Common kestrel and Sparrowhawk,” said the researchers of the study. Apart from luring birds within shooting distance, the team noted that in prehistoric communities like that of Natufians, people used by-products (talons and feathers) of the birds as personal ornaments, meaning that they valued birds.

The central part of the aerophones has been perforated one to four times to form finger holes. All the aerophones have contact wear imprints, indicating they have been well used. There were some bone fractures, but the excavation process might have caused some.

"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," said lead author Laurent Davin, to Live Science. "They tell us about the [inventiveness] and knowledge of acoustics of the Natufians as well as their technical precision. It also gives us evidence of the Natufians' relationship with the symbolically valued birds of prey, how they communicate with them or how their calls were integrated in Natufian music."

The team concluded that apart from the seven aerophones, technical traces on the bones reveal that similar instruments, not yet identified, are still hidden in other Natufian sites.

Study abstract:

Direct evidence for Palaeolithic sound-making instruments is relatively rare, with only a few examples recorded from Upper Palaeolithic contexts, particularly in European cultures. However, theoretical considerations suggest that such artefacts have existed elsewhere in the world. Nevertheless, evidence for sound production is tenuous in the prehistoric archaeological record of the Levant, the study of music and its evolution being sparsely explored. Here we report new evidence for Palaeolithic sound-making instruments from the Levant with the discovery of seven aerophones made of perforated bird bones in the Final Natufian site of Eynan-Mallaha, Northern Israel. Through technological, use-wear, taphonomic, experimental and acoustical analyses, we demonstrate that these objects were intentionally manufactured more than 12,000 years ago to produce a range of sounds similar to raptor calls and whose purposes could be at the crossroads of communication, attracting hunting prey and music-making. Although similar aerophones are documented in later archaeological cultures, such artificial bird sounds were yet to be reported from Palaeolithic context. Therefore, the discovery from Eynan-Mallaha contributes new evidence for a distinctive sound-making instrument in the Palaeolithic. Through a combined multidisciplinary approach, our study provides important new data regarding the antiquity and development of the variety of sound-making instruments in the Palaeolithic at large and particularly at the dawn of the Neolithic in the Levant.

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