Archaeologists working in the Levant believe that the advanced stage hunter-gatherers flutes carved with finger holes from waterfowl bones to imitate the cries of birds of prey.

The theory, published in Scientific reports June 9, is largely based on a multidisciplinary study of seven flutes, or aerophoneswhich were among 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 constitute the largest cache ever discovered in the Levant, were found between 1996 and 2005, the presence of the flutes was unknown until last year when archaeologist Laurent Davin found them. “Before our discovery, no sound instruments were known in all of the prehistory of the Near East,” Davin told Artnet News. “It was not planned and therefore difficult to convince our colleagues until we showed them all the evidence.”

bird flute

Archaeologists have found seven small flutes among more than a thousand bird bones. Image: Courtesy of Davin, Tejero et al. 2023.

The use of narrow waterfowl bones was a deliberate choice, the authors write, not one made from limited options. The similarities in the placement of the finger holes suggest the use of a jig and that the practice was common in Eynan-Mallaha. Moreover, playing aerophones would have required training and dexterity: the smaller the diameter of a bone, the more difficult it is to play (listen here).

One aspect of the research, undertaken by an international team of archaeologists and ethnomusicologists, was to produce three replica aerophones using the wing bone mallard ducks and then analyzing the sounds they produced. Height ranges matched those of kestrels and sparrowhawks.

But why, ask the researchers, the Natufians, the prehistoric peoples who created the flutes, wanted to imitate the sounds of kestrels and hawks? One possibility is that they were used to communicate over short distances. Another is that aerophones were used as a hunting aid, although researchers say they would have been ineffective as a decoy. Most likely is their use as part of Natufian music and dance practices.

bone flute illustration

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

A clue to this possibility is the presence of talons, which were marked by man and used as personal ornaments. Birds of prey had symbolic value in Natufian culture, the authors suggest, citing research into the customs of the Plains Indians of North America and the Kaluli of Papua New Guinea, who also imitated bird calls through traditional practices. It is thought that in societies where bird by-products, such as talons and feathers, are used as personal ornaments, imitating bird calls has strong symbolic value in traditional practices.

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

The hope is that it will bring new insight into the early humans who were about to in transition in a complex agricultural society.

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