A 12,000-Year-Old Bird Call, Made of Bird Bones
In flight, the Eurasian kestrel is mostly silent, a small falcon that seems to defy physics as it faces the wind and hovers in midair, tail spread out like a fan. Flapping its wings vigorously, the bird of prey catches every eddy of the breeze while scanning the ground below for quarry.
Perched in its breeding grounds, however, the kestrel emits a series of raspy screams, each note a single-syllabled kik-kik-kik. In June, a team of Israeli and French archaeologists proposed that 12,000 years ago the Natufians, people of a Stone Age culture in the Levant and Western Asia, mimicked the raspy trills of the Eurasian kestrel with tiny notched flutes, or aerophones, carved from waterfowl bones.
The flutes, which were discovered decades ago at a site in northern Israel but were inspected only recently, may have been used as hunting aids, for musical and dancing practices or for communicating with birds over short distances, according to the study’s authors, who published their paper in Scientific Reports.
“This is the first time a prehistoric sound instrument from the Near East has been identified,” said Laurent Davin, an archaeologist at the French Research Center in Jerusalem who made the discovery.
The theory is largely based on fragments of seven wind instruments that were among 1,112 bird bones unearthed at Eynan-Mallaha, a prehistoric swamp village in the Hula Valley, which is still an important passageway for the more than two billion birds that annually migrate along the African-Eurasian flyway. The Natufians inhabited the Levant from 13000 to 9700 B.C., a time when humans were undergoing a massive shift from nomadic hunter-gatherers to more sedentary, semi-settled, open-air communities. The society featured the first durable, stone-based architecture and the first graveyards, with funerary customs that changed through time.
“The Natufians bear witness to a completely crazy period in human history, abandoning the nomadic lifestyle practiced since the dawn of man to settle down in one place,” said Fanny Bocquentin, the lead archaeologist on the dig since 2022. “It’s a big responsibility, a challenge they successfully met, since in a way they gave rise to our way of life and our food regime.”
Dr. Davin noted that the settlers of the valley had to find regular sources of food before they even knew how to cultivate them. “Before that time, they relied on game such as rabbits and foxes and gazelles,” he said. The lake and seasonal swamps that nearly covered the valley provided fish and an abundance of birds, most of them wintering waterfowl.
The swamp was drained by Zionist pioneers as part of an infrastructure project in the early 20th century, and first excavated by a French mission in 1955. Since then, careful sifting has yielded bones from a wide range of local animal species. The flutes went unnoticed until last year when Dr. Davin observed marks on seven wing bones of Eurasian coots and Eurasian teals. Only one of the instruments was fully intact, and that was all of two and a half inches long.
Closer inspection revealed that the marks were tiny holes bored into the hollow bones, and that one of the ends of the intact flute had been carved into a mouthpiece. Initially, Dr. Davin’s colleagues dismissed the holes as routine weathering. But when he subjected the delicate bones to micro-CT scans, he realized that the holes had been meticulously perforated and were spaced at even intervals. The bones had been scraped and grooved with small stone blades, he said, and they bore traces of red ochre and had microscopic wear patterns suggesting that the aerophones had seen considerable use. “The perforations were finger holes,” Dr. Davin said.
To test out his theory, a team of archaeologists and ethnomusicologists fashioned three replicas of the intact bone flute. Unable to obtain carcasses of Eurasian coot or teal, the researchers used the wing bones of two female mallard ducks. Blowing into the replicas produced sounds that they compared with the calls of dozens of bird species plying the Hula Valley. The pitch range was very similar to that of two kinds of raptors known to nest in the area, Eurasian kestrels and sparrow hawks.
The research team determined that the finger holes had been made with a flint tool so precise that the holes could be sealed with a fingertip, the sine qua non of wind instruments. “For the Natufian to produce those flutes was a piece of cake,” said Anna Belfer-Cohen, an archaeologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She added that the society produced a wealth of tools and highly sophisticated utensils, beaded jewelry, pendants of stone, bone, teeth and shells, as well as engraved bone and stone plaques.
The flowering of music-making in the deep past is hotly debated. The oldest flute attributed to modern humans is a five-holed aerophone found in 2008 at the Hohle Fels cave in southwest Germany. Carved from the wing-bone of a griffon vulture, the flute may be 40,000 years old, making it one of the oldest instruments ever found.
But some scholars point to a Neanderthal artifact known as the Divje Babe flute that was unearthed 28 years ago in a cave in northwestern Slovenia. That object, a young cave bear’s left thigh bone pierced by four spaced holes, is thought to date back at least 50,000 years. However, other scientists argue that the Divje Babe flute was simply the product of an Ice Age carnivore, possibly a spotted hyena, scavenging on a dead bear cub.
Hamoudi Khalaily of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who collaborated on the bird flute study, has said that if the Natufians used the aerophones to flush birds out of the marshes, the discovery would mark “the earliest evidence of the use of sound in hunting.” In other words, the miniature flutes could have produced Stone Age duck calls.
Natalie Munro, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, has an alternative hypothesis. “While we’re speculating, maybe the true purpose of the instruments was to communicate with a different animal altogether,” she said. Eynan-Mallaha was also home to a Natufian woman found buried with her hand resting on a puppy. The burial dates to 12,000 years ago and figures frequently in narratives of early dog domestication. “Maybe these bones and their high-pitched sounds were more akin to dog whistles,” Dr. Munro said. “They could have been used to communicate with early dogs or their wolf cousins.”
Considering the flute’s harsh tone, few scientists maintain that it was intended as a melodic tool. Still, as John James Audubon observed of a pair of American kestrels, “Side by side they sail, screaming aloud their love notes, which, if not musical, are doubtless at least delightful to the parties concerned.”