Stone Age Humans in the Levant Created Tiny Flutes From Delicate Bird Bones, Archaeologists Say

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Archeologists working in the Levant believe late-stage hunter gatherers carved flutes with finger-holes out of waterfowl bones to mimic the calls of birds of prey.

The theory, published in on June 9, is largely based off a multidisciplinary study of seven flutes, or aerophones, that were among the more than 1,000 bird bones discovered at Eynan-Mallaha, a Stone Age site in Northern Israel inhabited at a time when humans lived in semi-sedentary societies.

Although the bones, which date back 12,000 years and are the largest cache ever found in the Levant, were found between 1996 and 2005, the presence of the flutes was unknown until last year when archeologist Laurent Davin found them. “Before our discovery, no sound instruments were known in the whole Prehistory of the Near East,” Davin tells Artnet News. “It was not expected and as a result hard to convince our colleagues until we showed them all the evidence.”

bird flute

Archeologists found seven tiny flutes among more than a thousand bird bones. Image: courtesy Davin, Tejero et al. 2023.

The use of narrow waterfowl bones was a deliberate choice, the authors write, not one made out of limited options. The similarities of the placement of finger-holes suggests the use of a template and that the practice was commonplace at Eynan-Mallaha. Furthermore, playing the aerophones would have required training and dexterity: the smaller a bone’s diameter, the harder it is to play (listen here).

One aspect of the research, undertaken by an international team of archaeologists and ethnomusicologists, involved producing three aerophone replicas using the wing bones of mallards and then analyzing the sounds they produced. The pitch ranges matched those of kestrels and sparrow hawks.

But why, the researchers ask, did Natufians, the prehistoric people who created the flutes, want to imitate the sounds of kestrels and sparrow hawks? One possibility is that they were used to communicate over short distances. Another is that the aerophones were used as a hunting aid, though the researchers contend it would have lacked effectiveness as a decoy. Most probable is their use as part of Natufian musical and dancing practices.

bone flute illustration

Illustration showing the different parts of the bone flutes. Image: courtesy Davin, Tejero et al. 2023.

One hint at this possibility is the presence of talons, which were man-marked and used as personal ornaments. The birds of prey held a symbolic value in Natufian culture, the authors suggest, citing research on the customs of North America’s Plains Indians and Papua New Guinea’s Kaluli, who also imitated bird sounds as part of traditional practices. The thinking runs that in societies where bird by-products, such as talons and feathers, are used as personal ornaments, imitating bird sounds has a strong symbolic value in traditional practices.

“We hope to find other flutes in other Natufian sites where birds have been hunted, or maybe there are still more hidden in drawers” Davin said. “We want to work on the function of the flutes and develop this research.

The hope is that it will bring fresh insight on the early humans that were on the cusp of transitioning into a complex agricultural society.

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