These ancient flutes may have been used to lure falcons

The 12,000-year-old wind instruments made from bird bones are the oldest known from the Middle East

Seven ancient bone flutes, each shown from three different angles, against a black backdrop

These seven flutes (each shown from three views) made from the bones of small waterfowl are the oldest known wind instruments from the Middle East, a new study says. The largest measures only about 63 millimeters, or 2.5 inches.

© Laurent Davin

Perforated bones excavated at an ancient settlement in northern Israel may be the oldest wind instruments found in the region. The small flutes could have been used to make music, call birds or even communicate over short distances, the researchers suggest June 9 in Scientific Reports.

The instruments were unearthed from the remains of small stone dwellings at a lakeside site called Eynan-Mallaha, which was home to the last hunter-gatherers in the region until about 12,000 years ago, says Laurent Davin, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. All of the flutes were made from the wing bones of waterfowl that spent winter months at the lake, he notes. Of the seven flutes found, the largest appears to be intact and is about 63 millimeters (2.5 inches) long.

Microscopic analyses of the instruments clearly show that the finger holes were carved by humans and were not the results of gnawing by rodents or tooth marks left by predators, says Davin.

Davin and his team used the wing bone of a modern-day female mallard to make a detailed replica of the ancient flute. When played, the instrument produced high-pitched sounds similar to the calls of the common kestrel and the Eurasian sparrowhawk, raising the possibility the instruments were used to lure birds. Evidence suggests the inhabitants of Eynan-Mallaha used the talons of these birds of prey as tools and may have worn them as ornaments, Davin says.

Archaeologist Laurent Davin plays a reproduction of a 12,000-year-old bone wind instrument that was found at a site called Enyan-Mallaha in Israel. The high-pitched sounds are remarkably similar to the calls of kestrels and sparrowhawks.

Such flutes may have themselves been worn when hunting, says Davin. The largest of the flutes was decorated with red ochre and had a worn spot where it may have hung from a string or a strip of leather.

Although the team’s finds are oldest wind instruments in the Middle East, older musical instruments made of bone and ivory have been unearthed in Germany (SN: 6/24/09).

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