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World’s Oldest Instrument
October 04, 1999
image: Brookhaven National Laboratory

Chinese archeologists have unearthed a discovery in central China that is music to their ears. Excavations at the early Neolithic site of Jiahu in Hunan province have uncovered what is believed to be the world’s oldest playable musical instrument. The 9,000 year-old flute was found with 35 other flutes in the ancient village site, five of which were complete. Carbon-14 dating performed in China helped researchers pinpoint the age of the discovery.

Digging Up the Past

Listen to the Instrument

Although archeologists have found older instruments, they are too fragmented to be played. The discovery of the intact flutes presents a rare opportunity to hear music as it was produced nine millenia ago. "Mankind has always made music," said Dale Olsen, an ethnomusicologist at Florida State University at Tallahassee. "It’s no surprise that such wonderful instruments were made by ancient Asians because most of the world’s ancient organized musical contexts probably occurred in Asia."

"Jiahu has the potential to be one of the most significant and exciting early Neolithic sites ever investigated," said Garman Harbottle, a chemist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and a member of the Jiahu research team. In addition to the flutes, archeologists found ceramics, house foundations and cellars at the site, offering a snapshot of human civilization at a significant turning point. Only five percent of the site has been excavated so far.

The Melody Lingers

image: Brookhaven National Laboratory

The flutes are made from the wing bones of red-crowned cranes and were probably used during rituals, according to Harbottle. They have between five and eight holes. Tonal analysis of the flutes revealed that the holes correspond to a tone scale similar to the eight-note scale that begins "do, re, mi." "This is a big deal," said Olsen, citing the flute as mankind’s most important melodic instrument. "I hope that archaeomusicologists around the world will have the opportunity to study them."

Elsewhere on the web:

Brookhaven National Laboratory
Center for Music of the Americas

produced by Jill Max

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