Archaeologists discover and replicate earliest musical instrument in the Middle East

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Archaeologists are hearing for the first time how humans made music some 12,000 years ago, by recreating a flute that was likely used to hunt ducks and other small birds in northern Israel.

On Friday, a team of Israeli and French researchers published an article about the recreated bone flute in the peer-reviewed Nature Scientific Report, offering an auditory window into how early humans shifted from hunter-gatherers to more settled villages, creating the earliest known musical instruments ever discovered in the Middle East.

The French-Israeli team of archaeologists discovered fragments of seven different flutes, dating to around 10,000 BCE, which is the largest collection of prehistoric sound-producing instruments ever found in the Levant. The pieces were found at the Eynan/Ain Mallaha site, a small village some 35 km (20 miles) north of the Sea of Galilee. The site was inhabited from 12,000 BCE to 8,000 BCE, around the time when humans were undergoing a massive revolution from nomadic hunter-gatherers to more sedentary, semi-settled communities.

Dr. Laurent Davin, a post-doctoral fellow at Hebrew University, was examining some of the bones recovered from the site when he noticed tiny holes drilled at regular intervals along a few of the bones. At first, experts had dismissed the holes as regular wear and tear on the delicate bird bones. But Davin examined the bones more closely and noticed that the holes were at very even intervals, and clearly created by humans.

“One of the flutes was discovered complete, and so far as is known it is the only one in the world in this state of preservation,” Davin said in a press release that accompanied the article’s publication.

Dr. Hamoudi Khalaily, a senior researcher with the IAA, spent 10 years excavating at the Eynan site and was instrumental in creating a replica of the extant flute.

“There were a lot of doubts that this was even possible [to recreate], but the replica was created exactly [in the same way] as the original and it allowed us to hear what people would have heard 12,000 years ago,” Khalaily told The Times of Israel.

“When we first heard it, it gave us this feeling like, we are really doing something for history,” Khalaily said.

The recreated flute produces a screeching, breathy whistling sound that Khalaily and the team believe could be an imitation of predator birds, including falcons, which eat small waterfowl.

“The sound could have attracted predator birds, which creates chaos with the other birds, and then it’s very easy to catch them, even with your hands,” explained Khalaily.

Previously, nomadic hunter-gathers had focused on bigger game such as gazelles, rabbits, or foxes. But when humans began settling in the Hula Valley for the first time, they started taking advantage of new food sources, including fish and smaller waterfowl in the lake that used to stretch across the Hula Valley.

Today, the Hula Valley is still a major conduit for bird migration in the late fall when tens of thousands of birds pass through Israel on their way from Europe to Africa. The Hula Valley was once covered by water, with a 13 square kilometer (5 square mile) lake and 47 square kilometers (18 square miles) of seasonal swamps. Early Zionist pioneers drained the swamp in the early 20th century as a major infrastructure project to create more agricultural land and to combat malaria.

A trove of bird bones

At the Eynan site, archaeologists are excavating a small Natufian village, which was a Mesolithic culture in the Levant and Western Asia around 9000 BCE. It’s a unique time because the culture emerged when humans started living a semi-sedentary lifestyle predating the agricultural revolution, meaning they had to find regular food sources in the same area even before they knew how to cultivate them. Once humans became more settled, their culture underwent dramatic societal change including the appearance of burial practices, art, and durable structures.

The Eynan site was first excavated by a French mission in 1955 and later from 1996–2005 by a joint team from Israel and France directed by François Valla of the Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and Khalaily of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Excavations at the site are ongoing and it can take years to methodically sift through all of the earth removed from a site and search for fragments of tools, animal bones, or other detritus from daily life thousands of years ago. Over the past two decades, careful sifting has yielded 1,112 bird bones from the Eynan site.

Dr. Hamoudi Khalaily holds the original 12,000-year-old flute discovered in a Natufian village in northern Israel. (Hamoudi Khalaily/IAA)

The bone flute was researched and recreated by a team of French and Israeli experts, consisting of archaeologists and archaeozoologists, who study animal bones, ethnomusicologists, paleo-organologists (the research of ancient sound-making instruments), and technical experts that were able to find ways to recreate the exact placement of the finger holes.

The original flutes, also called aerophones because they are an instrument that produces sound due to vibrating air, were made from the hollow wing bones of the Eurasian teal and the Eurasian coot. The current replica was made from the wing bones of two female mallard ducks “because of the difficulty in obtaining carcasses of Eurasian coot (Fulica atra) used by the Natufians,” the article stated.

The tinier the bone, the more difficult it is to play. The researchers believe the bones were chosen specifically to mimic the calls of the Eurasian Sparrowhawk and the Common Kestrel, two birds of prey that were widespread in the Hula Valley.

Migrating Gray Cranes at the Agmon Hula Lake in the Hula Valley in northern Israel, November 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Menahem Kahana)

The flute represents the oldest musical instrument found locally, but it is not the oldest aerophone that has been discovered. Most of the known Paleolithic sound-making instruments are found in Europe, and the oldest dates to around 40,000 years ago, which was found in southwestern Germany, made from bird bone and mammoth ivory.

Previous to this discovery, the only known “music” or sound production during the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods in the Levant was from a few studies suggesting that humans could have developed a belt of bone pendants that clacked and rattled, or possibly a bone whistle (flute with no fingerholes).

Fragments of seven flutes discovered in northern Israel that were likely used for hunting birds some 12,000 years ago. (Hamoudi Khalaily/IAA)

The flute represents an important discovery, but it’s not music to everyone’s ears.

“I heard it for the first time on Youtube, and it’s really a terrible tone, it’s high and pitchy and not nice at all to my ear,” said Prof. Rivka Rabinovich, the scientific director of archeozoological collections at the National Natural History Collections at the Hebrew University. Rabinovich, an expert in studying and interpreting the remains of ancient mammal bones has been studying the discoveries from the Eynan site for years.

Rabinovich added that there’s no way of knowing whether ancient humans had a similar cringe reaction when they heard it; whether it was used for hunting, communication, or making music.

But it opens a window into a fascinating point in human development, the complexity of society and their ability to make tools. The small finger holes in the flute were drilled with the talon of a larger bird, likely a falcon. Archaeologists believe that talons also had spiritual significance to early humans, Khalaily said.

The tiny finger holes drilled with talons at regular intervals in the 12,000-year-old flute discovered in northern Israel (Hamoudi Khalaily/IAA)

“It’s very interesting because this is just at the starting point of people becoming more sedentary,” Rabinovich said. “It’s a very exciting period at which to understand the day-to-day life and also larger questions beyond day-to-day life, and why they did certain things.”

She credited the discovery to the large and varied French-Israeli team, which united researchers and archaeologists with areas of expertise in niche areas like reconstructing bone tools and interpreting scratches made in animal bones.

“The message from this is that you really need to save everything [excavated from a site] because you always see these things with new eyes and new tools,” she said. “It takes a long time to sift through things, and when you look at it anew, you can see it differently. That’s because there’s continually new research, there’s continually new technology, and new ways to investigate new information. And it all works together to create a more complete picture of what happened there.”

Part of the research team, from left to right, Laurent Davin, Julien Navas, and Aurelia Bourbon with the recreated 12,000-year-old flute. (Laurent Davin)

The Eynan site hosted continuous human presence for around 4,000 years, with people living in round houses made of stones with animal hides or branches for roofs. In 8,000 BCE, when the agricultural revolution was well underway, humans abandoned the site, moving around 500 meters closer to the Hula Lake, whose contours had changed with time.

One of the most important tests on the flute is yet to come: In late fall, when the annual bird migration through the Hula Valley takes place, Khalaily plans to take the replicated flute to the Eynan site and play it there, in the same spot where humans created it 12,000 years ago.

“I want to go and see if we can make these voices, in hopes of attracting a hawk or falcon,” he said. “I’m naturally an optimistic person, but I do really think it will work. If we were able to replicate this sound, I’m certain it will bring those birds to us.”

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