Oldest playable musical instruments found at Jiahu early Neolithic site in China


Excavations at the early Neolithic site of Jiahu in Henan Province, China have produced what may be the earliest complete, playable, tightly-dated multinote musical instruments. Jiahu was occupied from 7000 BC to 5700 BC, considerably antedating the well known Peiligang culture.  Here we describe six exquisitely made complete flutes which were found in radiocarbon-dated excavation layers, along with fragments of perhaps 30 more. The flutes are made from the ulnae of the red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis Millen) and have 5, 6, 7 and 8 holes. The best preserved flute has been played and tonally analysed. In addition to early musical artefacts, the archaeological record at Jiahu contains important information on the very foundations of Chinese society. We describe the archaeological characteristics of the Jiahu site, details concerning its dating, its place in the prehistory of the Chinese Neolithic, the ethnicity of its population and the results of a tonal analysis of a nearly 9,000-year-old musical instrument found there.

The discovery of complete, playable multinote flutes at Jiahu presents us with a rare opportunity to hear and analyse actual musical sounds as they were produced nine millennia ago. Earlier flutes have been found in Neanderthal contexts, but they are so fragmentary that it is difficult to do more than guess their tonal production. We arranged to test one or more of the six flutes discovered at Jiahu; all are of the vertically held type (Sachs-Hornbostel classification 421.111.12).

The best preserved flute (M282:20;), which was free of cracks, was chosen to be tested using a 'Stroboconn' sound-analysing stroboscope, supervised by Huang Xiangpeng from the Music School of the Art Institute of China. This flute has seven main holes plus a tiny hole near hole 7. Two other seven-holed flutes were considered, but playing tests produced cracking sounds and were promptly discontinued. However, data were recorded for two players blowing twice each with their embouchures angled at 45 up and 45 down across the mouth of flute M282:20 (eight scales altogether).

Flute sound sample. (Click to hear!)  Credits: Excavator: Juzhong Zhang, Prof. of the Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Henan Province. Researcher and Designer for the sound recording: Xiangpeng Huang (deceased), Prof. and Original Director of Music Institute of Art Research Institute of China; Xinghua Xiao, Prof. of Music Institute of Art Research Institute of China; Zhongliang Tong, Prof. and Original Director of Wuhan Music College. Player: Taoying Xu, Engineer of Music Institute of Art Research Institute of China. Recorder: Bobao Gu, Engineer of Music Institute of Art Research Institute of China. Playing content: A part selected from the ancient Chinese folk song "Xiao Bai Cai" (Little Cabbage).

Without testing more flutes, we cannot say whether the tonal scale of the bone flute of Jiahu (M282:20) is the ancestor of either the six-tone Qing Shan scale or the seven-tone Xia Shi scale; in any case, the latter two scales are only documented six millennia later. It should be possible, by constructing exact replicas of the Jiahu flutes in material whose density approximates bird-bone, to study the tonal sequences of all these instruments without endangering the valuable artefacts themselves. The carefully selected tone scale observed in M282:20 indicates that the Neolithic musician of the seventh millennium BC could play not just single notes, but perhaps even music. It is important in considering the possible role of these flutes in Neolithic society to recall that ancient Chinese tradition held that there were strong cosmological connections with music: that music is part of nature. In this context, the performance of rituals and music were specifically associated with matters of state and sound government.

Excavation of only a small fraction (<5%) of the Jiahu site has revealed that, by the unexpectedly early date of 7000 BC, a complex, highly organized Chinese Neolithic society had already begun to evolve employing multinote musical instruments. Future excavation and research should help us to understand the technical aspects of one of mankind's earliest practices of musical expression, which probably took place in a ritual setting.

Nature Macmillan Publishers Ltd 1999 Registered No. 785998 England.