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Bird bones that made music: Old dig site brings new discoveries

Prehistoric flutes made from bird bones at a village in Israel show a turning point in humanity’s time as hunter-gatherers morphed into something more agricultural.

(CN) — Although scientists have searched through the prehistoric site Eynan-Mallaha in northern Israel since 1955, a Franco-Israeli research team still found something new.

According to their study published Thursday in Nature Scientific Reports, new excavations unearthed seven 12,000-year-old flutes made from the bones of a small waterfowl. Because the site contained larger bird bones as well, the use of the smaller bird to make flutes indicates that this a deliberate choice of the village inhabitants. The Natufians were a Near Eastern, or Levant, civilization that lived in the village on Lake Hula's shores between 13,000 and 9,700 B.C., according to the study.

Together with the lead co-author on the study, José-Miguel Tejero with the University of Vienna, and their team, Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Laurent Davin created an experimental replica of the flute. Davin recalled his surprise at the sound the flute replica made when he blew into it, as well as at the connection he felt with the Natufians.

“It was very moving when I played it for the first time and heard the sound that Natufians made 12,000 years ago,” Davin, a postdoctoral researcher, said in an email. "The surprise was also to find out that the spectral analysis showed that the flutes imitated falcon calls, two species of which the talons were the most used in Natufian personal ornament, which is yet another indication of the close relationship that existed between the Natufians and birds of prey."

Davin believes that the Natufians’ use of the flute to communicate with birds of prey indicates humanity's transition from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle to something more agricultural, with the Natufians emerging as the first sedentary people to build humanity’s first villages.

“This would be a point of no return as it marked the beginning of the Neolithic transition (the domestication of plants and animals) in the Levant, which would later influence Europe,” Davin explained (parentheses in original). “I’m particularly interested in the personal ornaments of the Natufians, which, in terms of richness and diversity, is far beyond what we know from previous periods. No doubt the sedentary lifestyle and the new intergroup relations that it brought with it reinforced the need to pass on and mark one's identity through personal ornaments.”

Davin noted that prehistorical sound instruments are a rare find on a global scale. Making the latest discovery more special, he added, most instruments that have been found occurred in Europe.

“It is therefore even rarer to find them in the Levant. This rarity is undoubtedly partly due to the fact that most of the instruments were made of perishable materials," Davin said. "Natufian flutes are also rare, as they are very special instruments. These flutes mimic the songs of birds of prey. They are the oldest instruments of their kind in the world. Finally, one of these flutes is complete, which is extremely rare (almost all the prehistoric instruments we know today are fragments)."

The excavation at Eynan-Mallaha is ongoing. Previewing research that the team will conduct next month, Davin said they hope to see how Lake Hula's waterfowl will react to the sound of the flute and to find more bird bones.

“For sure, by reexamining the collections of bird bones from other sites in the Levant, we will find other instruments, perhaps even older," he said. "I also hope that our experimental approach will lead to a reexamination of prehistoric instruments that are already known, to find out what sound they produced and eventually to understand their function."

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Categories / History, Science

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