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September 22, 1999

Electronic newsroom



Brookhaven Lab Expert Helps Date Flute Thought to be Oldest Playable Musical Instrument

Bone flute found in China at 9,000-year-old Neolithic site

Upton, NY - Researchers in China have uncovered what might be the oldest playable musical instrument. Their work is described in a paper published in the September 23 issue of the scientific journal Nature.

Recent excavations at the early Neolithic site of Jiahu, located in Henan province, China, have yielded six complete bone flutes between 7,000 and 9,000 years old. Fragments of approximately 30 other flutes were also discovered. The flutes may be the earliest complete, playable, tightly-dated, multinote musical instruments.

Garman Harbottle, a chemist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory and member of the Jiahu research team, helped analyze data from carbon-14 dating done in China on materials taken from the site. "Jiahu has the potential to be one of the most significant and exciting early Neolithic sites ever investigated," said Harbottle. "The carbon dating was of crucial importance to my Chinese colleagues in establishing the age of the site and the relics found within it."

The exquisitely-crafted flutes are all made from the ulnae, or wing bones, of the red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis Millen) and have five, six, seven or eight holes. The best-preserved flute has been played and tonally analyzed in tests at the Music School of the Art Institute of China.

The discovery of these flutes presents a remarkable and rare opportunity for anthropologists, musicians and the general public to hear musical sounds as they were produced nine millennia ago. Two audio recordings of the flutes being played are available here: WAV file 1 (4.2 Mb), WAV file 2 (1.7 Mb).

Download a 300 dpi hi-res version of this image.

The excavations and carbon-14 dating were carried out by researchers from the Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Henan Province, Zhengzhou, China; the Archaeometry Laboratory at the University of Science and Technology of China; and the Paleobotany Laboratory, Academia Sinica, Beijing, China.

Tonal analysis of the flutes revealed that the seven holes correspond to a tone scale remarkably similar to the Western eight-note scale that begins "do, re, mi." This carefully-selected tone scale suggested to the researchers that the Neolithic musician of the seventh millennium BC could play not just single notes, but perhaps even music.

Jiahu lies in the Central Yellow River Valley in mid-Henan Province and was inhabited from 7000 BC to 5700 BC. The site was discovered by Zhu Zhi, late director of the Wuyang County Museum, in 1962, but only in the past 15 years has significant excavation activity begun. In addition to the musical instruments, the site has yielded important information on the early foundations of Chinese society. Music in China is traditionally associated with ritual observances and government affairs.

To date, only about five percent of Jiahu has been excavated, uncovering 45 house foundations, 370 cellars, nine pottery kilns and thousands of artifacts of bone, pottery, stone and other materials. Additional excavation activities are planned for the near future.

The authors of the paper describing the Jiahu findings are Juzhong Zhang, from the Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Henan Province, Zhengzhou, China, and the Archaeometry Laboratory at the University of Science and Technology of China; Changsui Wang, also from the Archaeometry Laboratory; Zhaochen Kong, from the Paleobotany Laboratory, Academia Sinica, Beijing, China; and Garman Harbottle from Brookhaven

The U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies. Brookhaven also builds and operates major facilities available to university, industrial, and government scientists. The Laboratory is managed by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited liability company founded by Stony Brook University and Battelle, a nonprofit applied science and technology organization.