The discovery of 12,000-year-old flutes in the Levant

The discovery of 12,000-year-old flutes in the Levant

About 12,000 years ago, in what is now the Near East, the Natufian culture emerged, halfway between nomadic and sedentary lifestyles. The Einan-Mallaha website in Israel provides important information about this transitional period several decades ago.

It is there that Laurent Davin, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, carries out his work in the field of decoration. The archaeologist has made a detailed examination of the many bird bones found at the site in hopes of discovering traces of feather removal. He had discovered some, but his examination allowed him to make an even more surprising discovery: seven musical instruments, resembling small flutes, carved out of bone.

These instruments, known as aerophones in archaeological terminology, are the oldest in the Levant, the region bordering the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.

Even if it’s not the oldest known instrument, that honor goes to the 40,000-year-old aerophones found in Germany, but the discovery is still significant. “These are the oldest we have that mimic the natural voice,” says Laurent Davin, whose study was published. in Scientific reports. In fact, these little flutes perfectly mimic the cry of the kestrel and sparrowhawk.

To reach this conclusion, a multidisciplinary team experimentally reconstructed three aerophones. Having relied on duck bones (due to the difficulty of obtaining those in existing species at the time), its members meticulously copied the discovered tools. And in their tests, the scientists were able to produce High quality notes. Knowing that birds were of great importance to the Natufian culture – as clay figurines of birds of prey were also found at the site – the team hypothesized that they may have been the sounds of birds. .

Scientists have reproduced
aerophone to listen to the sound. Photo: Laurent Davin

By comparing the sounds made by the experimental aerophones with the cries of the 60 species identified at the site, the archaeologists realized that the sounds of the kestrel and falcon corresponded to the sound of the flute. “It was like two pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that fit together,” says Laurent Davin. Coincidentally, these two types of birds were prized by this group, among other things, for their claws, which were probably used as tools and decorations.

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However, the few bones of these birds of prey found at the site, especially if we compare them with the number of instruments, would attest to the ineffectiveness of these aerophones as calls. Were these tools used to train falcons to hunt? This is an idea that remains to be explored.

But the team is more inclined to the musical function. Furthermore, various archaeological and ethnological data indicate that in different cultures where by-products of birds (claws and feathers) are used as decorations, imitations of their calls acquire symbolic significance in music and dance.

It’s a very well-developed hypothesis, according to Ariane Burke, a professor of prehistory in the University of Montreal’s department of anthropology. “The comparison between the sounds produced by the experimental devices and those of bird species found in the environmental context is fascinating,” she says.

Above all, the methodology presented in the article has proven to be rigorous. “Everything is done according to the rules of art to prove that these are exceptional things that were created voluntarily,” she says.

The researcher confirms that this discovery and the hypotheses that result from it give a human character to the archaeological record. “It makes you dream a little bit: you immediately think of those humans who were interested in these sounds and who might have made the music,” she explains.

This kind of find proves once again the importance of precision during excavations. For scholars, it is quite clear that the design of the flutes was not the result of chance, but of deliberate action: these things would be the product of a well-polished manufacturing technique, of imparted knowledge that would be improved over time. . “That is why we believe that these tools can be found in other groups of avian bones [provenant de sites natoufiens] Which has not been examined under this telescope, explains Laurent Davin.

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For him, this discovery reinforces the fact that the Natufians had connections with birds of prey. “It allows us to develop the story around this relationship and this symbolism.”

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About the Author: Irene Alves

"Bacon ninja. Guru do álcool. Explorador orgulhoso. Ávido entusiasta da cultura pop."

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