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Thursday, September 23, 1999 Published at 01:54 GMT 02:54 UK


The bone age flute

Some of the 30 flutes unearthed. The longest is 24 cm (9 inches) long.

By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse

It could be the sound that accompanied Neolithic rituals or perhaps it just drifted over the campfire into the night when civilisation was young. Perhaps it was the first music mankind ever made?

Hear Taoying Xu play the bone flute
It is the sound of a prehistoric flute, and it has been heard again after nine millennia.

Writing in the journal Nature, Garman Harbottle of Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York and colleagues from China describe flutes made from bird bones recovered from the Jiahu archaeological site in Henan Province, China.

Jiahu is a remarkable site that has only been partially excavated. It contains 300 graves as well as the remnants of ancient dwellings and artefacts.

Bird bones

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.

It may be one of the oldest musical instruments ever played, although scientists do 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 flute is capable not just of single notes but of what we would class as music. Listen to Taoying Xu playing a fragment of a Chinese folk song called the Xiao Bai Cai or 'the Chinese Small Cabbage.'

It is a haunting sound that comes to us from the dawn of civilisation.

Scientists say that this research only scratches the surface of discoveries made at Jiahu, which was occupied between around 7,000 and 5,700 BC.

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