Stone Age flutes with the sound of a bird of prey

Stone Age flutes with the sound of a bird of prey

The remains of the Stone Age “aerophones” in different views. Number seven is completely preserved. © Laurent Davin

Strange instruments sounded around 12,000 years ago in modern-day Israel: Archaeologists discovered surprisingly small wind instruments made of bird bones at a prehistoric site. As they report, an experimental replica of these objects produced very high-pitched sounds that evoke certain associations: the instruments sound like the calls of hawks or sparrowhawks. The scientists speculate that the sounds might have been intended to attract these birds of prey or that the sound might have a ritual significance.

The Eynan-Mallaha site in northern Israel has been providing insights into the world of the people of the so-called Natufian culture since 1955. These were the last hunter-gatherers in the region before agriculture became established in the Levant. As the team led by Laurent Davin from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem reports, numerous bird bones have been discovered in the settlement layers of Eynan-Mallaha in recent years, which date to the period 10,730 to 9760 BC. were dated. Most of them came from waterfowl, which people apparently preyed on at the time.

Small bones with holes and mouthpieces

However, on closer examination of the finds, the archaeologists identified seven bird bones, which are probably not leftovers from meals: one complete and seven fragmentary objects show characteristic traces of processing. Holes had been cut into the long, hollow structures, as well as elements that the research team interpreted as mouthpieces. According to them, these were wind instruments. Much older flutes are known from Europe, but as far as the Levant is concerned, the finds are now the earliest examples of so-called aerophones, report Davin and his colleagues.

It is striking that people apparently used small bones to build the flutes. Because these are the wing bones of smaller waterfowl, which are only a little over six centimeters long. Surprisingly, the larger goose bones that can also be found at the site were not made into instruments. An experimental approach then provided clues as to what this selection might have been all about: The scientists made a copy of one of the Stone Age flutes in order to clarify how the instruments might have once sounded.

Characteristic high notes

As they report, the replica produced very high tones when blown into it, which could be varied by covering the holes. According to the researchers, the sound characteristically resembles the calls of birds of prey native to the region: kestrels and sparrowhawks. The scientists therefore suspect that the pipe-like wind instruments were intended to specifically imitate the sounds of these animals.
But what purpose could such raptor flutes have served? From other finds in Eynan-Mallaha it is at least clear that kestrels and sparrowhawks had a special meaning for the people of the Natufian culture: numerous claws of these animals were found, which were possibly used as tools or as ornaments. So it seems conceivable that people lured the birds of prey with the sound of the flutes in order to be able to hunt them more easily.

Another possible background seems more likely to the researchers: the wind instruments could have been used in musical or dance practices. As they explain, there are examples of this: instrumental imitations of their sounds at ceremonies are known from cultures in which birds have a mythological role and claws or feathers are worn as ornaments. So maybe that was also common in the Levant 12,000 years ago. "The production of certain tones may have played a role in different aspects of the socio-cultural way of life of the Natufians," the scientists write.

Source: Scientific Reports, doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-35700-9

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