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12,000-year-old flutes found in Galilee imitate predatory birds

The tiny instruments, made from the wing bones of waterfowl, may have been used to hunt.

Using a replica of one of the ancient whistles. Photo by Laurent Davin.
Using a replica of one of the ancient whistles. Photo by Laurent Davin.

Tiny bones from prehistoric birds found at a birdwatching site in northern Israel’s Hula Valley functioned as miniature flutes and were possibly used for hunting, music or some form of communication with birds, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced this weekend.

The findings, set forth in a research paper published Friday in the Scientific Reports journal by a team of Israeli and French researchers, propose that tiny flutes made from the wing bones of waterfowl uncovered in Eynan/Ain Mallaha, a small village some 35 km. (20 miles) north of the Sea of Galilee, were used to imitate the calls of predatory birds.

The excavations at the site, which were carried out by a French mission back in 1955 and later in 1996 to 2005, uncovered fragments of seven flutes dating back to 10,000 BCE among the bones of a variety of animal species, including birds, the state archaeological body said.

The find is the largest collection of prehistoric sound-producing instruments ever found in the Levant. 

The site was inhabited from 12,000-8,000 BCE, around the time when humans were undergoing a revolution from nomadic hunter-gatherers to more sedentary communities.

The flutes found at Lake Hula in the Galilee. Credit: CAD.

Researchers examining some of the bones recovered at the site noticed tiny holes drilled at regular intervals along a few of the bones, leading them to realize that they were clearly man-made.

They discovered that the instruments produce different sounds and concluded that they are flutes. When the sounds were compared with the calls of dozens of bird species that were found in Eynan/Ayn Malaha they proved to resemble those of birds of prey—the Eurasian sparrowhawk and the Common kestrel.

One of the theories is that people equipped with the flutes took up a position near waterfowl. When the sparrowhawks and kestrels, attracted by the calls produced by the whistle, approached, the waterfowl took wing and flew off in a variety of directions, making them easier to catch.

 “One of the flutes was discovered complete. So far as is known it is the only one in the world in this state of preservation,” said Dr. Laurent Davin of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Dr. Hamoudi Khalaily of the Israel Antiquities Authority in a joint statement. “The replicas produce the same sounds that the hunter-gatherers may have made 12,000 years ago.”

“If the flutes were used for hunting, then this is the earliest evidence of the use of sound in hunting, Khalaily said.

In most sites from the period, these instruments deteriorated and vanished.

“The current research shows just how important it is to preserve the cultural finds uncovered during excavations, which continue to yield new insights and research directions into human culture, thanks to new methods and to collaboration among scholars in different disciplines,” said Professor Rivka Rabinovich of the Institute of Archaeology and scientific director of the National Natural History Collections at the Hebrew University.

The Hula Valley is used by millions of birds traveling between Europe, Asia and Africa during their annual migrations.

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