Archaeologists have discovered the oldest wind instruments in the Near East, small flutes used more than 12,000 years ago to imitate the cry of a species of raptor that played a key role in the culture of local populations.
"Damn it, it's a flute!" exclaimed archaeologist Laurent Davin when he discovered last year that the seven objects excavated, the oldest in 1998, were wind instruments. "They were bird bones, arranged as such after the excavation, among a thousand others", and which once re-examined by the archaeologist revealed their secret. The site of the discovery, Eynan-Mallaha, an archaeological site in present-day northern Israel, hosted the Natufian culture 12,000 to 15,000 years ago.
“Homo sapiens had always been mobile until then. The hunter-gatherers of this culture initiate a major change by becoming sedentary," says Laurent Davin, attached to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, lead author of the study published Thursday in Nature Scientific Reports with Jose-Miguel Tejero, of the University of Vienna.
The tiny object was easy to ignore. Taken from the wing of a water hen, the bone is less than ten centimeters long, and is pierced with small, difficult to distinguish holes on the duct, which is less than half a centimeter in diameter.
The craftsmen had "a certain notion of acoustics", they understood that "the narrower the air duct, the higher the sound", says the archaeologist. With the result, when one blows into the object, to "imitate the song of birds of prey".
To be sure, the researchers produced, at the Nantes veterinary laboratory, an exact replica of the Eynan-Mallaha flutes using a duck wing bone, worked with a flint. And compared the sound produced with that of more than sixty species of birds hunted by the Natufians and whose remains have been found on the site. "The spectral analysis coincided exactly with that of the falcons," says Laurent Davin. It is the oldest bird-song instrument known to date, according to the scientist.
The identified raptor had a visibly important role in the culture of the Natufians, their talons being used as adornment. Hypothesis supported by the discovery of clay bird figurines, at least one of which clearly represents a bird of prey (these works will be the subject of a publication).
The flutes may have been used as decoys to hunt these birds, but the researchers note that the site contains few remains of such birds. The hypothesis of their use for falconry is itself very difficult to prove.
There remained that of their "integration into musical practices, and that is something of which we have a lot of examples in ethnography", explains Laurent Davin. As among the Plains Indians, still today in the United States, who use in ceremonies flutes made from the bones of eagles. This is also the case, for example, "in Papua New Guinea where the songs of forest birds are included in the ceremonies", continues the archaeologist.
The chance "discovery" of these instruments at Eynan-Mallaha should lead to a re-examination of other bone collections in the area. "It is very likely that they are found elsewhere in the Near East," concludes the researcher.