Archaeologists have found seven flutes made of perforated bird bones at the Natufian site of Eynan-Mallaha in northern Israel. These instruments were intentionally manufactured more than 12,000 years ago to produce a range of sounds similar to raptor calls and whose purposes could be at the crossroads of communication, attracting hunting prey and music-making.
The Natufian culture is an archaeological culture in the Levant dating to around 15,000-11,700 years ago.
It marks the transition from hunter-gatherer Paleolithic societies into fully-fledged agricultural economies of the Neolithic.
“The Natufians were the first hunter-gatherers in the Levant to adopt a sedentary lifestyle, a dramatic economic and societal change associated with growing social complexity as reflected in various aspects of their material culture,” said Dr. Laurent Davin, a researcher with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and CNRS, and colleagues.
In their study, they examined avifauna remains from the Natufian settlement of Eynan-Mallaha in the Hula Lake Basin of the Upper Jordan Valley, Israel.
They identified one complete and six fragments of worked bone as sound-making instruments of a kind never identified before in the wider Paleolithic record.
“In the three cases where the epiphysis is still present, it has also been perforated to form the mouthpiece or the distal end of the object.”
“To these finger-holes are added markings on three bones, either notches or a series of small parallel incisions located near the finger-holes, which are potentially linked to the placements of the fingers on the instrument.”
“All the worked areas show contact-wear traces indicating that all instruments have been used.”
“When looking at the state of preservation, most of the fractures are old, but some were caused by the excavation process.”
These seven flutes demonstrate the existence of a distinct category of objects that might represent a tradition of sound production at the Natufian settlement of Eynan-Mallaha.
“These wind instruments employ the musically effective finger-hole principle for generating and organizing of different sound pitches — the single-player melodic capability — resulting in complex sound-communication behavior,” the researchers said.
“Altogether, technological, use-wear, taphonomic, experimental and acoustical evidence combined with comparative record of ethnographic and archaeological examples suggest a new type of Paleolithic aerophone, which was not identified before.”
“It is unique in the Paleolithic record of sound instruments both by the chosen medium — i.e., small-sized bones of waterfowl, as well as the sounds it produces which closely resemble falcon calls.”
“This new discovery contributes to the larger picture of music evolution a yet unexplored category of sound-making instruments which have been part of the Paleolithic acoustic environment, and produced artificial sounds resembling natural ones.”
A paper describing the findings was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
L. Davin et al. 2023. Bone aerophones from Eynan-Mallaha (Israel) indicate imitation of raptor calls by the last hunter-gatherers in the Levant. Sci Rep 13, 8709; doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-35700-9