9,000 Year Old Chinese Flutes

Newspaper Articles


September 28, 1999
By Henry Fountain

Chinese archeologists have unearthed what is believed to be the oldest known playable musical instrument, a seven-holed flute fashioned 9,000 years ago from the hollow wing bone of a large bird.

The instrument, about nine inches long, is the best preserved of six intact flutes found with fragments of about 30 others at Jiahu, a remarkably rich but little-known archeological site in the Yellow River valley in Henan Province in central China. Radiocarbon dating shows the site was occupied for 1,300 years beginning around 7000 B.C., during the early Neolithic period in China.

Nine millennia after lips last touched it, the flute was played again and its tones analyzed. The seven holes produced a rough scale covering a modern octave, beginning close to the second A above middle C. There is evidence that the flute was tuned: a small hole drilled next to the seventh hole had the effect of raising that hole's tone from roughly G-sharp to A, completing the octave.

It is impossible to know what relationship, if any, the tones have to six- or seven-tone Chinese scales first documented 6,000 years later (the other intact flutes have five to eight holes, but are not playable because of their condition). But the fact that the playable flute had a carefully selected tone scale indicates that the Neolithic musicians may have been able to play more than single notes, but actual music.

While fragments of what appear to be flutes made from animal bones have been found at much older Neanderthal sites, the Chinese instruments are the oldest ones that have remained intact. They were discovered more than a decade ago, but are only now being described in the West in a paper in the journal Nature, the result of an unusual collaboration between the Chinese researchers and a scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island.

The Chinese scientists had published their work in journals only in their own country, which in terms of making it known worldwide "is as effective as entombing it in the Great Pyramids," said the Brookhaven scientist, Garman Harbottle, an expert in using nuclear science in archeological and fine arts applications.

Through contacts in China, Dr. Harbottle was invited to visit with Chinese archeologists and specialists in radiocarbon dating. On a side trip, he was taken to Henan Province and shown items from the Jiahu dig.

"They showed me shelves and shelves of artifacts that they had taken out of this site over about six years," Dr. Harbottle said. The artifacts included pottery and ceramics and items made from stone and bone. Their number and variety were astounding, Dr. Harbottle said.

Toward the end of the visit, the Chinese scientists opened a safe and took out the flutes. "I was absolutely astounded," said Dr. Harbottle, who persuaded his Chinese colleagues that the discovery should be published in the West. He helped analyze the radiocarbon data and wrote the Nature paper.

The flutes are made from the bones of the red-crowned crane, a fact that could have significance in Chinese culture, said James C. Y. Watt, Brooke Russell Astor curator of Asian art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He said there was a Chinese legend, first documented about 2,000 years ago, of people who could summon cranes by playing on the flute.

Although there is no way of knowing the origin of the legend, Mr. Watt said he was fascinated by "this very distant connection between the flute and the crane."

The flutes, found in some of the more than 300 graves uncovered at the site, almost certainly were used in rituals, said Frederick Lau, an ethnomusicologist and associate professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. They may have been used as bronze bells dating back 2,000 years were used, at temple fairs, burials and other ritualistic events.

"But I wouldn't exclude the fact that flutes could have been used for personal entertainment," Dr. Lau said. More modern bamboo flutes were used in official rites, particularly in the military, going back many hundreds of years, but they were also widely used in the popular music of regional cultures and played an important role in Chinese opera.

The flutes are only the most remarkable artifacts from Jiahu, less than 5 percent of which has been excavated. More than 40 house foundations have been uncovered, as have 370 cellars and 9 pottery kilns.

There are signs at the site of rice cultivation, Mr. Watt said, adding to speculation about which Asian culture first domesticated rice. And the middens, the site's refuse pits, contain remains of many animal species, Dr. Harbottle said, indicating that the Jiahu people had a rich diet.

Also uncovered at Jiahu, Mr. Watt said, were pictograms, signs carved on tortoise shells. Similar artifacts have been found among the remains of a culture that flourished in the second millennium B.C., he said. In that culture, the shells were used as a form of divination. They were touched by a piece of hot metal, and resulting cracks were interpreted as good or bad omens, with the results carved permanently on the shell. The discovery of shell pictograms at Jiahu, Mr. Watt said, "means that this form of divination may have gone back thousands of years."

Jiahu may turn out to be one of the most important sites for understanding the early underpinnings of Chinese society, when humans left the caves of the Stone Age and began practicing agriculture and establishing permanent settlements.

"The site would be a very exciting and important one," Dr. Harbottle said, given all the other artifacts discovered there. "The flutes were just icing on the cake."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company

Distant Melodies -- Recently Uncovered Ancient Flute Sings a Prehistoric History

By Amanda Onion

NEW YORK -- Long ago in China, someone picked up the hollow wing bone of a crane, smoothed the edges and bored seven holes along one side. Then, perhaps to correct for an off-key note, they drilled an even smaller hole beside the last. Last month and 9,000 years later, a musician picked up the same ancient instrument and played a Chinese folk song using that extra, pitch-correcting hole. It played perfectly.

"The guy [not a woman?--BF] had obviously spent a lot of time on it," said Garman Harbottle, a chemist at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island who wrote about the ancient flute in this week's journal, Nature. "He didn't want to throw it away, so he found a way to correct it."

A New Art Form

Archeological evidence has shown that people have created musical instruments since the ancestors of modern man first appeared. The earliest instruments -- such as whistles and drums -- were most likely crafted with a purpose in mind. Drums provided a form of communication over long distances and whistles could lure a bird or other creature to their human predator.

Later, people discovered scales -- a graduated series of notes that make ear-pleasing melodies when played in certain sequences. Now, for the first time, scientists have a sense of just what kind of sound ancient musicians may have produced during the Neolithic period of human history.

The 9,000-year-old flute that weathered the centuries to remain in unusually fine condition was found at the village of Jiahu, located by the central Yellow River valley in China. The site is particularly rich with artifacts including turquoise carvings, elaborate pottery and a carved tortoise shell with engraved characters that some believe could be the ancestor of later Chinese writing. "This was a flourishing, rich culture," said David Keightley, a historian of Ancient China at the University of California at Berkeley. "Because they were able to feed themselves well, they had high cultural development."

Harbottle suspects the Neolithic people lived in a structured society where individuals may have carried out roles in the community. Music may have been one of those roles. Archaeologists found evidence of more than 30 flutes at the site, all made from the wing bone of the red-crowned crane and carved with five to seven holes. The instruments were delicate, measuring about 20 centimeters in length and one and a half centimeters in width. And all were found inside graves among the 400 human burials excavated at the site.

Thousands of years later, only one of these flutes could produce music without signs of strain. The 22-centimeter flute created very thin, high-pitched notes that resemble the sound of a person whistling.

Intuitive Design

Most significantly, Harbottle says the seven notes on the instrument comprise a nearly accurate octave.

Robert Fink, a musicologist in Saskatchewan, Canada, points out that in nearly every other matter -- money, distance and time -- humans divide things into units of ten. It's only in music that cultures have settled on octaves -- a range of seven notes with the first note repeated at the end -- to arrange their music.

"The nature of sound, itself, is what ends up cutting the steps out of the continuum of sound for us," Fink said. "It overrides the usual desire to make things equal."

One of the most compelling pieces of evidence that music is intuitive lies in the design of what is thought to be the oldest instrument ever recovered. In July, 1995, a Slovenian archaeologist found a 43,000-year-old fragment of a bear femur bone in a cave in northern former Yugoslavia. Carved into the bone were two complete holes in the middle and two partial holes carved at each of its broken ends. The distance between the holes indicated that Neanderthals once played [notes in] the same musical scale -- known as the diatonic or do re me scale -- that is used today.

The evenly distributed holes in the Chinese flute suggest it did not play the whole and half-note sequences of the diatonic scale. Instead, Harbottle and colleagues suspect it may be part of one of two ancient Chinese scales that were documented six millennia later.

The Jiahu settlement that spanned 1,300 years was not advanced enough to leave behind any written records of its own. But documents from much later cultures in China appear to allude to the settlement's ancient flutists.

Upon learning about the bird-bone flutes, James Watt, the curator of Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York reconsidered a Chinese legend that was recorded about 7,000 years after the end of the Jiahu settlement. In the legend, the flutist's music is so mesmerizing that large cranes flock from the sky and gather around the musician. Watt asked, why cranes? "The flutes from that period were made of bamboo, not bone," he said. "The connection between the crane and the flute likely came from how the instruments were made thousands of years earlier."

In order to better analyze the music of these bone flutes, Chinese scientists plan to create replicas of the instruments. And if they make a mistake, their ancient ancestors have already demonstrated how to correct a note.


By Jospeh B. Verrengia

AP [EXCERPTS] 9/23/99 -- Archaeologists in China have found what is believed to be the oldest still-playable musical instrument: a 9,000-year-old flute carved from the wing bone of a crane. When scientists from the United States and China blew gently through the mottled brown instrument's mouthpiece and fingered its holes, they produced tones unheard for millennia, yet familiar to the modern ear.

"It's a reedy, pleasant sound, a little thin, like a recorder," said Garman Harbottle, a nuclear scientist who specializes in radiocarbon dating at Brookhaven National Laboratory.... The flute was one of several instruments to be uncovered in Jiahu, a excavation site of Stone Age artifacts in China's Yellow River Valley....
The flutes have as many as eight neatly hollowed tone holes and were held vertically to play. The Jiahu flute is considerably more recent than a flutelike bone discovered in 1995 in an excavation of Neanderthal tools in a cave in Slovenia....

"You would never have one of these flutes in a symphony. But clearly, these people knew what an octave sounded like," Harbottle said. He said the flute can make what sounds like a do-re-mi' scale. It even has a tiny hole drilled near hole No. 7, apparently to correct an off-pitch tone.

That the flutes were made of durable bone rather than bamboo, as later flutes were, also suggests they were culturally important, and not mere amusements. In fact, some scholars believe the Chinese written character for "sound" is a stylized representation of a vertical flute held in the mouth.....

The flutes were uncovered at Jiahu in the 1980s. Their tonal qualities initially were tested in 1987. The intact Jiahu flute remains locked in a laboratory in China, but replicas may be constructed for more tonal tests.

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9,000 Year Old Chinese Flutes

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