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12,000-year-old flutes found in Israel may be earliest bird-call whistles in the world

Israeli archaeologists find seven tiny whistles made of bone that emit sounds like calls of predatory birds at prehistoric swamp site in the Hula Valley

This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission. Sign up here to get Haaretz’s free Daily Brief newsletter delivered to your inbox.

Over 12,000 years ago, prehistoric people in northern Israel may have invented the duck call.

Seven tiny, fragile wing-bones discovered at a prehistoric site in northern Israel turn out to have been perforated. They may have served as whistles imitating the calls of predatory birds, Israeli archaeologists reported Friday in Nature Scientific Reports.

Or maybe they were very tiny musical instruments; or used to communicate with birds; or for another purpose we cannot fathom. In any case, replicas of the ancient artifacts produced sounds similar to the calls of sparrowhawks and kestrels, say the authors, Dr. Lauren Davin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and French Research Center of Jerusalem, Dr. José-Miguel Tejero of Vienna University and Barcelona University, Dana Shaham of the Hebrew University, Dr. Hamoudi Khalaily of the Israel Antiquities Authority and colleagues.

One of the flutes was discovered complete, the team says.

They could have been imitating bird calls in order to attract them, as duck hunters do to this day. Today some hunters preen in their ability to imitate a duck while others resort to industrially made “duck call” whistles.

Does duck calling actually work, though? “A realistic duck call can lure ducks close enough for hunters to take ethical shots,” claims one purveyor of presumably realistic devices. Sometimes, if anything, they reportedly seem to repel the birds in droves.

“If the flutes were used for hunting, then this is the earliest evidence of the use of sound in hunting,” Khalaily says. It’s almost a miracle that these instruments survived the ages – one would expect mini-flutes made of teeny bird bones to deteriorate and vanish, but these didn’t and were found while flushing with water the finds from the excavation of Eynan, a prehistoric settlement in the Hula Valley, a once swampy area north of the Sea of Galilee.

Eynan is associated with a Late Stone Age culture, the Natufians, pre-agricultural groups living in Israel and the surrounding region from 15,000 to about 11,700 years ago. They were hunter-gatherers but were among the earliest people to settle down, building the first known stone homes in the region. They also created giant stone “boulder” mortars whose use remains a mystery, may have had shamans, did have dogs, and buried their dead with ceremony.

Excavations at Eynan began in 1955, by a French mission, and continued later from 1996 to 2005 by a joint team from the CRJF and the IAA, directed by François Valla of the Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and Khalaily. In various digs, the archaeologists found the remains of five circular stone homes and a plethora of animal bones, including birds – over 1,100 bird bones. Most turn out to have belonged to migratory waterfowl.

The new paper reports on recent analysis of the material culture and grave goods previously found at Eynan; and while studying some of the bird bones found at the site, Davin noticed marks on seven tiny wing bones of Eurasian coots and Eurasian teals.

The realization arose that the marks were very tiny perforations – holes bored into the fragile, narrow bird bones. So the bones had been worked, they were artifacts.

Together with scientists at the CNRS, Aurelia Bourbon and Olivier Tourny, replicas were made and while experimenting with them – they discovered that blowing into them produced sounds. They were miniature flutes of some kind, it seems.

Shoring up their contention that the holes were drilled deliberately and not made by the teeth of a swamp cat or other hungry predator, the team closely analyzed how the perforations interpreted as finger-holes were made. The answer is “meticulously,” by transverse and oblique micro-grooving with a flint tool. “The grooving is precise and was obtained by movements alternatively from the right and left edges, reorienting the bone blank several times,” they explain – and the result is holes that can be sealed by the fingertip, a must for wind instruments.

Comparing the sounds made by the replicas with the calls of dozens of bird species plying the Hula Valley, they realized the sounds were like the calls of birds of prey: the Eurasian sparrowhawk and the Common kestrel. Nothing like that has even been found in the Paleolithic archaeological record, the archaeologists say.

Why would the Natufians want to reproduce the calls of predators? Even if the context was hunting, two possibilities come to mind. One is to flush other, more toothsome birds out of the swamp and vegetation of the valley. By this theory, when they blew the whistle, other waterfowl afraid of the predatory sparrowhawk and the kestrel would take fright and beetle off, and could be shot down with bow and arrow or however they hunted birds.

Note that according to Prof. Tal Simmons of Virginia Commonwealth University, most of the bird bones they identified belonged to migratory birds: waterfowl who winter in Israel.

Another possibility is that the raptors would be attracted to the calls and could then be shot and eaten themselves. Also, going back hundreds of thousands of years, humans and their predecessors seem to have had a fetish for raptor talons and feathers; and their bones could be used too, to produce more bird-call whistles.

The discovery of musical instruments from the deep past is rare, and controversial. One famous example is the “Neanderthal bone flute” with holes that some researchers believe were instead made by hungry hyenas.

The postulated whistles add to other evidence of sound-making in the Natufian, says Dana Shaham of the Hebrew University. For instance, possible instruments include a “belt” of bone pendants that may have served as rattles, bone objects interpreted as bullroarers (aka tundruns – an instrument that makes load roaring noises that can be heard over great distances), and as for those strange mortars, some carved into the very bedrock of Israel, there is a theory that pounding them would make a drumming sound that could be used, for instance, to call the clan to convene. And if they did, they could possibly have whistled down some birds to eat in happy community.

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