The Japan Times
September 24, 1999

9,000-year-old, still-playable flutes found in China


NEW YORK (AP) Archaeologists in China have found what is believed to be the world's oldest still-playable musical instrument — 9,000year-old flutes carved from hollow wing bones of a red-crowned 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 that had not been heard for millennia, yet were 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 on New York's Long Island.

Harbottle and three Chinese archaeologists published their findings in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

The flute was one of six flutes and 30 fragments uncovered in Jiahu in Henan Province, a excavation site of Stone Age artifacts in China's Yellow River Valley where archaeologists have also found exquisitely wrought tools, weapons and pottery.

Dated to 7,000 B.C., the flute is more than twice as old as instruments used in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and other early civilizations.

Of the three dozen bone flutes found at Jiahu, five were riddled with cracks big and small; 30 others had fragmented. 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. That artifact was believed to be more than 43,000 years old, but musicologists question whether it is an instrument.

In contrast, there is no doubt among researchers that the Jiahu artifacts are instruments capable of playing multinote music.

Music historians and archaeologists were intrigued by the find.

"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 its hole No. 7, apparently to correct an off-pitch tone.

Scholars said the bone flutes provide further proof that prehistoric Chinese culture was not crude. Music played an integral role, perhaps combined with astronomical observations and other rituals that helped to rule their society, they said.

THIS IS AN UNDATED handout photo of several musical instruments uncovered in Jiahu, China, by archaeologists in the 1980s. The scientists believe a flute (second from bottom) is the world's oldest, still-playable musical instrument. The other flutes have cracks and are unplayable. AP PHOTO