Archaeologists in Israel have discovered the oldest wind instruments ever found in the Middle East, dating back to the period when humans made the transition from hunter-gatherer lifestyles to agricultural settlements. Constructed from the wing-bones of small ducks, the flutes mimic the calls of local birds of prey and may have been used for hunting or simply to produce music.
The ancient instruments were uncovered at the site of Eynan-Mallaha in northern Israel, in a layer of sediment associated with the Natufian archaeological culture. Occupying the region between 13,000 and 9,700 BCE, the Natufians were the first people to adopt a sedentary lifestyle and establish an agricultural economy, thus bringing humanity from the Paleolithic into the Neolithic.
In total, the archaeologists unearthed seven bone aerophones, one of which was intact while the remaining six were fragmented. “One of the flutes was discovered complete. So far as is known it is the only one in the world in this state of preservation,” explained researchers Dr Laurent Davin and Dr Hamoudi Khalaily in a statement sent to IFLScience.
“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,” write the researchers in a new study.
Each flute was perforated with one to four finger holes, allowing the player to manipulate the tone. After creating replicas of the ancient instruments, the researchers noted that they produced “three intense high frequencies” which mimicked the calls of the common kestrel and the sparrowhawk – both of which were common in the region at the start of the Neolithic.
“The replicas produce the same sounds that the hunter-gatherers may have made 12,000 years ago,” said Davin and Khalaily. “We, therefore, believe that the Eynan-Mallaha aerophones were made to reproduce the calls of the valued Common kestrel and Sparrowhawk,” they write.
Speculating as to the purpose of these raptor-parroting flutes, the researchers discuss whether they may have been used to lure the birds to within hunting distance. “If the flutes were used for hunting, then this is the earliest evidence of the use of sound in hunting,” said Khalaily.
However, after briefly exploring this possibility, they conclude that such a tactic “would have lacked effectiveness.” Instead, they wonder "if imitative bird calls were integrated into Natufian musical or dancing practices."
Whatever their function, these ancient instruments are the earliest sound-making devices ever discovered in the Levant – though older examples have previously been found in Europe, including a set of 40,000-year-old bone and ivory flutes from southwestern Germany.
Framing their discovery within the wider context of human cultural development in the Middle East, the researchers explain that “it is now clear that the evolution of music at the transition to agriculture, which articulated the intensification of socio-cultural complexity, was more branched than we supposed before.”
The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.