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       Bone Flutes: (Form and Function:)

Bone flutes are one of the oldest known deliberately made musical instruments. Almost all prehistoric bone flutes come from a time in prehistory associated with post-Neanderthal activity, however the Divje Babe flute from Slovenia suggests both that Palaeolithic people were aware of music, but also that they used the same diatomic scale that we use today.

The function of bone-flutes in prehistoric times is highly debateable, but the large numbers discovered reveal that it had a generic importance. Suggestions include ritual, ceremonial, shamanic and simple pleasure. The native Carobs of Guyana made human bone-flutes from their enemies bones through which they believed in a form of 'transubstantiation in reverse', whereby unlike the Christian principle of taking nourishment from Christ (through bread and wine), the Carobs believed that by investing the bones with their essence they could communicate with the the spirits of their enemies to learn what they were thinking.


   Examples of Prehistoric Bone Flutes:

The Divje Babe Flute: (Slovenia) A Bear femur bone 43,000 - 84,000 BP. The spacing between the holes matches present diatomic scale (5) At present there is still an official dispute over whether the holes were man-made or not, but the evidence points strongly in favour of the idea that this is the earliest yet discovered evidence of a musical instrument in the world. It was found in a Neanderthal setting making it the only one of its kind, with all others being associated with Homo sapiens

The Divje Babe Flute is on show at the National museum of Slovenia. The museum's visitor leaflet maintains that manufacture by Neanderthals "is reliably proven". (8)


The Hohle Fels Flute: (Germany): Griffin-vulture bone flute 35,000 - 40,000 BP. (1) The worlds oldest confirmed bone-flute at present. A 5-holed, flute with a V-shaped mouthpiece. Found with fragments of mammoth-ivory flutes. (3)

(More about Hohle Fels)

Gei�enkl�sterle, (Germany) Ivory flute found dated to 36,000 years ago. (2)


Isturitz Flutes: (France) A total of 22 bone flutes have been identified at the Isturitz site in the French Pyrenees, most from later Upper Palaeolithic proveniences, circa 20,000 years BP. (6)

This bone-flute from La Roque in France, was found in 30,000 year old deposits. It has a hole in the back for the thumb.


Chinese Bird-bone Flutes:

Jiahu: (A cache over over 30 bird-bone flutes). The 9,000-year-old flutes are made from hollowed bird bones, and have between 5 and 8 holes. Remarkably, one of the flutes is still playable. Scientists also know of a 45,000-year-old, so-called Neanderthal flute made of a hollow bear bone that was dug up in Slovenia in 1995. The Chinese flutes are capable not just of single notes but of what we would class as music (4)

The bone flutes excavated from the Jiahu ruins in Wuyang County of Henan Province is the earliest wind instrument found so far by Chinese archaeologists. The flutes dates back over 8,000 years. The largest is about 20 cm long and 1 cm in diameter, with 7 evenly-distributed sound holes of the same size. And a handful of such flutes have an extra small hole beside the last hole.

The making method and process of Jiahu bone flute are very much similar to those of modern-day Chinese wind instruments. According to zoologists' research, Jiahu bone flutes are made with crane ulna bones with the joints at both ends removed. Some bone flutes still bear the marks carved before hole drilling for even distribution, indicating the careful calculation Jiahu people conducted before flute making. The extra small hole on some flutes has been proved by scientists through tone testing to give out two variable sounds. Therefore, the hole serves as a tone adjuster.    

The flute reflects the amazingly high levels of tonality and calculation. Modern musicians can play the pentatonic-scale tune of Little Cabbage (Xiao Baicai) on the flute. These facts indicate that Jiahu people already had the basic ideas about the tone differences and tried to achieve the pitch accuracy. They also had rudimentary understanding of the relations between sound pitch and pipe length.  

The discovery of Jiahu bone flutes has rewritten the history of Chinese music, proving that the seven-tone scale music was practiced some 8,000 years ago (7).

The predominance of bird-bone flutes in the early history of bone-flutes is explained by the fact that they are already hollow, whereas other animals such as mammals have their bones filled with marrow.

(More about Prehistoric China)


South American Bone Flutes:

Vultures and condors, with their keen eyesight, were considered expert at finding lost objects.  Among the Western Mono and Yokuts tribes, "money finders" wore full-length cloaks of condor feathers that reputedly enabled them to find lost valuables (Snyder and Snyder 2000:38).  This power was extended to finding missing persons among condor shamen of the Chumash.

California condors also played a part in cosmic events.  Among the Chumash, condors or eagles were sacrificed based on which celestial body was prominently visible at the time of the ceremony.  Eagles were selected for rituals concerned with the Evening Star (Venus), while condors were chosen for rituals associated with the planet Mars (Hudson and Underhay 1978:88; Simons 1983).

Caral-Supe: The discovery of 32 flutes made of Pelican and Condor Bones at Caral, echoes the Palaeolithic Old-world fascination with bird-bone flutes. Several horns made from Llama or Alpaca bones were also found. (3) The Caral-Supe civilisation, dated at c. 2,600BC is now recognised as a south American 'mother' culture.

The bone-flutes were found between the pyramids within the large sunken amphitheatre, with enough room for hundreds of people during community gatherings. The 32 flutes made of the wing bones of pelicans were tucked into a recess in the main temple. They were played by blowing into the central hole and covering either the left or right hand holes. And, in April 2002, they uncovered 37 cornets of deer and llama bones. "Clearly, music played an important role in their society,".

Based on the radiocarbon dating from [Solis 2001], the most likely date for the flutes appears to be 2170�90 BCE (Sample �Beta 134427 - Offering inside room on top of Piramide Mayor, Caral�).

(More about Caral-Supe, Peru)



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