The First Prehistoric Wind Instruments Discovered in the Levant

Bone aerophones from Eynan-Mallaha, level Ib (Final Natufian). 1: EM99 7201; 2: EM96 5564; 3: EM97 6182; 4: EM99 7414; 5: EM04 9363; 6: EM98 6581; 7: EM98 7026 with details of the 10 worked areas: 7c/7d/7e/7i being finger-holes (in green), 7a/7b/7f./7 h being shallow notches (in blue), 7 g the mouthpiece with two perforations (7g1 and 7g2) and a residue of colouring material (7g3), 7j the distal end. (CAD and photos L.D.).

Although the prehistoric site of Eynan-Mallaha in northern Israel has been thoroughly examined since 1955, it still holds some surprises for scientists. Seven prehistoric wind instruments known as flutes, recently identified by a Franco-Israeli team, are the subject of an article published on 9 June in Nature Scientific Reports. The discovery of these 12,000 -year-old aerophones is extremely rare – in fact, they are the first to be discovered in the Near East. The “flutes”, made from the bones of a small waterfowl, produce a sound similar to certain birds of prey (Eurasian sparrowhawk and common kestrel) when air is blown into them.

The choice of bones used to make these instruments was no accident – larger birds, with bigger bones that produce deeper sounds, have also been found at the site. The Natufians, the Near Eastern civilisation that occupied this village between 13,000 and 9,700 BC, deliberately selected smaller bones in order to obtain the high-pitched sound needed to imitate these particular raptors. The instruments may have been used for hunting, music or to communicate with the birds themselves. Indeed, it is clear that the Natufians attributed birds with a special symbolic value, as attested by the many ornaments made of talons found at Eynan-Mallaha.

The village, located on the shores of Lake Hula, was home to this civilisation throughout its 3,000 years of existence. It is therefore of vital importance in revealing the practices and habits of a culture at the crossroads between mobile and sedentary lifestyles, and the transition from a predatory economy to agriculture. This work2 was supported by the Fyssen Fondation and the ministère des Affaires étrangères.

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