Photo Credit: Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority
The ancient flute.

A new paper by Dr. Laurent Davin, a post-doctoral fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Centre de Recherche Français à Jérusalem (CRJF), and Dr. José-Miguel Tejero, of the University of Vienna and the University of Barcelona, Spain, published in the prestigious journal Nature Scientific Report (Bone aerophones from Eynan-Mallaha, Israel, indicate imitation of raptor calls by the last hunter-gatherers in the Levant), uncovers that rare prehistorical objects found in the Huleh Valley in northern Israel, crafted 12,000 years ago, functioned as miniature flutes – and was perhaps used for hunting, music or some form of communication with the birds.

The Eynan/Ain Mallaha site, in the Huleh Valley in northern Israel, was first excavated by a French mission in 1955, and later in 1996–2005 by a joint team from the CRJF and the Israel Antiquities Authority, directed by François Valla of the Centre Nationale de Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) and Dr. Hamoudi Khalaily of the IAA. In the settlement circular structures, homes of hunter-gatherers were found the bones of a variety of animal species, including birds.


As part of the material culture study and funerary offerings at Eynan/Ain Mallaha from the final Natufian period (12,000 ago), Dr. Laurent Davin examined the bones of birds that were recovered by the excavators. According to Prof. Tal Simmons of Virginia Commonwealth University, most of them are wintering waterfowl. Dr. Davin noticed marks on seven tiny wing bones of Eurasian coots and Eurasian teals. In collaboration with Dr. José-Miguel Tejero, he closely examined these marks and realized they are very tiny holes bored into the hollow bones.

Demonstration of a replica of the whistle. / Dr. Laurent Davin

To figure out how the objects were used, the team worked with Aurelia Bourbon and Olivier Tourny, researchers at the CNRS, to fashion replicas of the originals. As part of an experiment carried out on the replica, they discovered that the instruments produce different sounds and it was 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 resembled those of birds of prey—the Eurasian Sparrowhawk and the Common Kestrel.

One of the theories is that people equipped with these 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.

It also seems likely that in the ensuing confusion, the birds of prey themselves could be trapped. Their claws were used to pierce bones to produce new whistles and as ornaments. It is also possible that the sounds produced by the flutes served different social-cultural-symbolic functions for the hunter-gatherers in Eynan/Ein-Mallaha.

This finding joins other testimonies about the complexity of the world of sound of the people of the Natufian culture, according to Dana Shaham, a doctoral fellow from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, whose research specialty is ancient art.

“One of the flutes was discovered whole,” Dr. Laurent Davin and Dr. Hamoudi Khalaily pointed out. “So far as we know, it is the only one in the world in this state of preservation. The replicas produce the same sounds that the hunter-gatherers may have made 12,000 years ago.”

According to Dr. Khalaily of the IAA, “If the flutes were used for hunting, then this is the earliest evidence of the use of sound in hunting. In most sites from the same period, these instruments deteriorated and vanished. These samples were found as a result of careful and gentle sieving of the excavation finds, using water.”

“This discovery provides important new information on hunting methods and supplements the various prehistorical tools that mark the start of the transition from agriculture and the cultivation of plants and animals in the southern Levant,” she added.

Prof. Rivka Rabinovich of the Institute of Archaeology and scientific director of the National Natural History Collections at Hebrew University, where research is conducted on the remains of animals from the Eynan/Ayn Malaha site, said: “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 collaboration among scholars in different disciplines.”

“Waterfowl are extremely widespread and represented by entire skeletons, whereas most of the remains of birds of prey are their talons. The flutes were found at the site in several concentrations, evidence of different areas of activity,” she said.

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