These 12,000-Year-Old Instruments Were Intentionally Screechy

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Archaeologists never know what they’ll discover in the dirt. And that’s especially true for the archaeologists studying the ancient site of Eynan-Mallaha in Israel. In fact, according to an article in Nature Scientific Reports, researchers recently identified seven woodwind instruments within the rubble from the region, which were made to mimic the sounds of a raptor.

The instruments are among the oldest in the world and, according to the researchers, represent the first to be found in the Levant, the region that fostered the first stages of the Neolithic Revolution approximately 12,000 years ago.

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Natufian Noise

The Natufian civilization was an archaeological culture that thrived in Western Asia around 15,000 to 12,000 years ago. Following a transitional lifestyle that bridged the difference between the foraging of the Paleolithic period and the agriculture of the Neolithic, the Natufians were pioneers in the move to settlement, being the first to adopt a sedentary lifestyle in the Levant.

Resulting in an astonishing increase in the civilization’s material output, staying in a single place meant that the Natufians made and manufactured much more than their predecessors from the region. Their wares ranged from tools to weapons to figurines and other fineries. And among these artifacts are seven, 12,000-year-old woodwind instruments, which produced a range of sounds similar to that of a bird of prey whenever they were played.

Though the purpose of these instruments remains mysterious, researchers say that their discovery is vitally important. Not only does it reveal the origins of instrument-making and playing in the Levant; it also reveals the traditions of a culture that toed the line between foraging and agriculture.

Making and Studying Ancient Aerophones

Wanting to learn more about the Natufians’ material industry, the team of researchers scrutinized over 1,100 bird bones from the Eynan-Mallaha site in Israel. Studying the size, shape, and structure of these bones — which were all around 12,000 years old — the researchers realized that several had been intentionally transformed into aerophones, a type of instrument that includes flutes and other woodwinds.

According to the researchers, the seven instruments were crafted from the assorted wing bones of the small waterfowl that roamed the site, including the humeri, the radii and the ulnae of the Eurasian teal and the Eurasian coot. Each of the hollow bones had been perforated anywhere from one to four times for the formation of finger-holes, and each showed signs of wear and tear consistent with their use as a flute.

Though the instruments had been broken into fragments during their time in the dirt (with only one specimen representing a full flute), recreations of the woodwinds allowed the team to replicate their sounds. Similar to the screeches of the raptors that inhabited the region many millennia ago, the researchers say that the instruments imitated the sounds of the Eurasian kestrel and Eurasian sparrowhawk.

According to the team, the particular pitch of the instruments was an intentional decision. Though there were plenty of bigger bird bones preserved at the site, which would have been better for turning into instruments as well as for playing, the Natufians specifically selected smaller bones that produced a screechy sound similar to a bird of prey. They even experimented with an assortment of types of these small bones, from humeri to ulnae, suggesting their search for a specific sound.

Though the team can only speculate about purpose of these instruments, which the Natufians may have played to facilitate hunting or to accompany rituals, the researchers stress that their work reveals the rich history of music-making in the Levant.

“It is now clear that the evolution of music at the transition to agriculture, which articulated the intensification of socio-cultural complexity, was more branched than we supposed before,” the team concludes in its Nature Scientific Reports article. “Thus, the exploration of Natufian acoustics gives a new perspective on this crucial period in human history.”

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