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Breathing Life Into an Ancient Flute

22 September 1999 6:00 pm
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Listen closely and you may hear the gentle lilt of music from long ago. Archaeologists have discovered the oldest playable musical instruments: 9000-year-old flutes whose complex melodies evoke the first stirrings of Chinese music.

Since the 1980s, archaeologists have been excavating an ancient village called Jiahu, in China's central Yellow River valley. By measuring radioactive carbon atoms in fruit pits and other objects, the scientists know that Jiahu thrived in the early Neolithic period from 7000 B.C. to 5700 B.C.--long before Chinese civilization began to flourish around 2000 B.C., during the Bronze Age.

Jiahu culture may be old, but it is far from primitive. Among other sophisticated artifacts, the archaeologists--led by Juzhong Zhang of the Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Henan Province--found six intact flutes in a burial site. Up to 25 centimeters long, the flutes have five to eight holes and were probably played like a recorder. They are made from the wing bones of the red-crowned crane.

Although there are much older flutes from Europe and Asia (ScienceNOW, 29 October 1996), the Jiahu artifacts are the first to be played. Musicians at the Art Institute of China tried out the best preserved flute, testing the frequency of the notes with a device called a stroboscope. The seven holes sounded notes of equal musical intervals, according to a report in the 23 September issue of Nature. Although they were unable to discern whether the flute's tone scale was a precursor to either of two known Chinese tone scales, the musicians were able to play recognizable folk songs with the instrument. The researchers plan to construct replicas of the other instruments to analyze the tonal sequences without harming the artifacts.

"The flutes are really spectacular," says Yun Kuen Lee, an expert on Chinese archaeology at Harvard University who has seen the Jiahu collection. "We can only speculate" about what the music meant to the people of Jiahu, says Lee, who suggests that traditional healers, or shamans, may have played the flutes during religious rituals.

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