These 12,000-Year-Old Flutes Mimic the Sound of Prehistoric Birds

The remnants of seven small bird bone instruments were discovered in northern Israel

Replica flute
Researcher Laurent Davin plays a replica of one of the 12,000-year-old bird bone flutes recently discovered in northern Israel. Davin et al., 2023

Scientists in Israel have discovered seven 12,000-year-old flutes, according to a study published this month in the journal Scientific Reports. Made from tiny bird bones, the instruments were likely designed to imitate the calls of birds of prey.

The flutes were among a collection of 1,100 bird bones unearthed during previous excavations at an archaeological site in Israel’s Hula Valley. During a recent examination of the artifacts, scientists noticed that seven had strange features—like finger holes and mouthpieces—that would have allowed them to function as musical instruments.

These flutes, or aerophones, are some of the oldest known instruments that imitate bird calls. While older bone flutes have been found elsewhere, they are quite rare, and this discovery marks the first time a prehistoric sound instrument from the Near East has been identified, according to a statement from Virginia Commonwealth University.

“They all show microscopic use-wear indicating they were, in fact, used or played,” says study author Tal Simmons, a forensic anthropologist at the university, in the statement. “They are also really unique because 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.”

To learn more, the researchers created replica versions of the flutes—which they were able to play themselves.

Researchers discovered pieces of seven flutes, including one completely intact instrument. Davin et al., 2023

“It was very moving when I played it for the first time and heard the sound that Natufians made 12,000 years ago,” says lead author Laurent Davin, an archaeologist at the French Research Center in Jerusalem, to Live Science’s Jennifer Nalewicki.

The remnants of the seven flutes—including one complete instrument—were the work of the Natufians, who lived in the Levant region between 13000 and 9700 B.C.E. and transitioned over time from foraging to agriculture, becoming the first group in the region to adopt a sedentary lifestyle, per Discover magazine’s Sam Walters.

Thanks to their discovery, researchers have a new opportunity to learn more about life during this transition time, says study author Rivka Rabinovich, an archaeozoologist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to the Times of Israel’s Melanie Lidman. “It’s a very exciting period at which to understand the day-to-day life and also larger questions beyond day-to-day life,” she adds.

The artifacts can offer insight into the Natufians’ relationship to birds of prey and the role of music in their culture. The craftsmanship of the flutes, which were likely painted and worn on a string around the neck, shows sophistication and technical precision. The Natufians picked small wing bones from the Eurasian teal and the Eurasian coot to best mimic the sound of birds of prey native to the area.

Sound produced by the Natufian aerophone from Eynan-Mallaha 12,000 years ago

“The Natufians chose those small bones because they wanted the sound to be like this in order to imitate falcon sounds,” says Davin to Live Science. “This demonstrates their knowledge of acoustics and indicates that there were probably other instruments made of perishable materials.”

The flutes may have been used in hunting to lure birds so they could be caught, making the instruments the “earliest evidence of the use of sound in hunting,” says study author Hamudi Khalaily, a senior researcher with the Israel Antiquities Authority, to Haaretz’s Ruth Schuster.

Still, the flutes could have been used for other purposes. Playing them “may also have been an attempt to spiritually commune or communicate with these birds of prey,” says Simmons in the statement. “They were important to Natufian—and earlier—cultures in the Levant ... These may have been worn by the prehistoric people as ritual ‘jewelry’ and may even have been ‘totem’ animals.”

This fall, Khalaily plans to return to the excavation site during the annual bird migration period and test out a replica flute. 

“I’m naturally an optimistic person, but I do really think it will work,” he tells the Times of Israel. “If we were able to replicate this sound, I’m certain it will bring those birds to us.”

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