12,000-Year-Old Bird Bones Revealed as Prehistoric Flutes

ByQuyen Anne

Sep 4, 2023

We’re familiar with discoveries of ancient art works and tools long-buried, but knowledge of early human use of sound-making devices – or palaeo-organology – remains a mysterious realm.

While revisiting a collection of Palaeolithic bird bones excavated from northern Israel between 1996 and 2005, a group of international researchers found a number of the bones to have been fashioned into tiny flutes.

The bones date back to 10,000 BC and originate from a Natufian archaeological site at Eynan-Mallaha in the Hula Basin of the historical Levant region, which takes in much of the modern-day Eastern Mediterranean area of West Asia, including parts of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

Out of 1,112 bones and bone fragments from 58 different bird species, the research team identified one complete set and six pieces of “worked” wing bones, with the clearly human addition of deliberately-shaped holes and notches set in varying series, as well as mouthpieces, all showing traces of “contact-wear” indicative of purposeful use. Previously dismissed as just residual wear-and-tear, the holes are of a size and concave angle appropriate for covering with a finger, while the notches appear to be corresponding directives for finger placement.

The ancient bird bones pictured against a black background.
Bone aerophones from Eynan-Mallaha, level Ib (Final Natufian).()

The workings, or “perforation by micro-grooving technique,” are of a level of precision not seen before in tool or ornament production of the same region and era. Additionally, remnants of a mix of clay and ochre indicate the flutes were most likely painted, and it’s thought possible they may have been worn strung around players’ necks.

“Although bone ‘flutes’ or ‘aerophones’ are known from other archaeological sites elsewhere in the world, they are quite rare and have been found mostly in Europe,” stated Dr Tal Simmons, forensic anthropology professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University and co-author of the paper in Scientific Reports journal.

“These are the first to ever be identified from the Near East.”

Who were the Natufians?

A large scale and a close up black and white map of the region where the bird bones were found.
(A) Map of the distribution of Late/Final Natufian sites in the Levant; (B) Hydrographic Map of the Hula Basin.()

From approximately 12,000 to 9,500 BC, the Palaeolithic Natufian culture developed in the Levant and led into the Neolithic era – the final period of the Stone Age or the “New Stone Age”, in which nomadic hunter-gatherer communities transitioned to geographically-settled societies. As the researchers describe, this marked a “dramatic economic and societal change associated with growing social complexity,” shown by a burgeoning and more permanent material culture which included building stone dwellings, cultivating grains and storing food, and establishing graveyards.

There’s also evidence that the Natufians brewed beer, and kept domesticated dogs. In 1978 at Eynan-Mallaha, the site at which the bone aerophones were later found, the skeleton of a four-month-old puppy was discovered buried with an elderly human skeleton: the human skeleton’s hand positioned as if holding the puppy.

As socially advanced as they were, though, the Natufians were still very much hunters, and it’s thought that these aerophones would have been mainly used for this purpose.

The delicate instruments mimic the sound of “raptor” calls

And no that’s not velociraptors – those predatory dinosaurs made famous in the Jurassic Park film franchise had already been extinct for some tens of millions of years by the time of the Natufians. The aerophones the researchers found are thought to imitate the calls of birds of prey, specifically types of falcon known to the Levant.

Upon the creation of a copy of the one complete aerophone as well as computational spectral analysis conducted during the study, Dr Simmons confirmed, “The sound they produce is very similar to that of two specific birds of prey that were hunted by the people living at the site where they were discovered, namely the kestrel and the sparrowhawk.”

YOUTUBEResearcher Dr Laurent Davin plays the bone flute copy

Another of the co-authors, independent researcher Dr Hahmoud Khalaily, has plans to visit the excavation site during the next migratory season, tiny flute copy in hand, telling the Times of Israel, “If we were able to replicate this sound, I’m certain it will bring those birds to us.”

Co-author Professor Rivka Rabinovich of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem is less keen.

“It’s high and pitchy and not at all nice to my ear”.

Not all of the seven instruments and instrument pieces identified are an acoustic match to falcon calls, however, leading the research team to question whether “imitative bird calls were [also] integrated into Natufian musical or dancing practices” – a significant discovery regarding Palaeolithic sound-making, if true.

Why bird bones?

Brown Eurasian teal with splashes of blue and green coloured feathers swimming on still, dark water.
Modern Eurasian teal.()
A grey and brown Eurasian coot chick with fluffy down looks up among bright green water foliage.
Eurasian coot chick.()

There’s a certain grimness to the idea of luring birds with tunes produced from the bones of their own family members, but there’s more to it that. Most bird bones are already hollow, rendering them ripe for this kind of repurposing. And as well as helping facilitate manoeuvrability in flight, that hollowness enables a form of avian circular breathing as a result of providing extra space for the unique arrangement of air sacs in birds’ lungs – like true wind players, birds can simultaneously take in oxygen whether inhaling or exhaling.

Why are the Natufian aerophones derived from such small bones, though? This is another piece of evidence in favour of the bones’ deliberate and intended use: the smaller the instrument, the finer the dexterity required to produce a sound, and given their established hunting preferences, the Natufians certainly had ready access to the bones of larger birds. These tiny wing bones came from Eurasian teals and coots, migratory waterfowl that travelled (and still do) south to the Levant for the winter. And the representation of different wing bones among the aerophones – humerus, ulna, and radius – further emphasises the seeking of the Natufians’ for specific sound qualities and pitches.

“The Natufians chose those small bones because they wanted the sound to be like this in order to imitate falcon sounds,” lead author Dr Laurent Davin, also of the Hebrew University, described to Live Science.

“This demonstrates their knowledge of acoustics and indicates that there were probably other instruments made of perishable materials.”

The bird bone aerophones currently reside in the zoological collections at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *