The Early Development of Music. Analysis of the Jiahu Bone Flutes

Article excerpt


It seems quite clear that no known human cultures lack music (Brown et al. 2000), but there is a dearth of archaeological evidence for musical development in prehistoric times. The earliest musical instruments ever found are the bone flutes recovered from the Upper Palaeolithic sites in Europe. Among them, the bone flute from the cave site of Geissenklosterle in Germany claims to be the oldest at c. 36 000 BP (Kunej & Turk 2000). Many of these musical artefacts, however, are so damaged such that tonal analysis on them is not possible. For the Palaeolithic bone flute that has been studied from a musical perspective, the test results are inconsistent in that the pitch and scale cannot be determined (Kunej & Turk 2000).

The recent recovery of multi-note flutes from archaeological contexts dating to the seventh millennium BC has gripped the world's imagination (Zhang et al. 1999). The flutes were recovered from Jiahu, a Peiligang culture site located in Wuyang, in the middle reaches of the Huai River Basin, central China. What is really remarkable about the Jiahu flutes is that several of them are in such good condition that they are theoretically still playable, and have musical characteristics comparable to their modern counterparts (Xiao 2000). The stratified Neolithic deposits at Jiahu covered a time span of over a millennium, and more than 30 multi-note bone flutes were recovered from the site. This paper reports the results of the tonal tests on five of them. Our study indicates that through time the Jiahu musicians became increasingly familiar with the expressive capability of the wind instrument and created an increasingly complex musical scale, mainly by boring additional holes, and narrowing the interval between tones of different pitch. In addition, we can see that the instruments were becoming progressively standardised, implying the development of a musical culture.

The Jiahu site

Jiahu is the most extensively excavated and one of the richest Peiligang culture sites of the early Neolithic in China. The first phase of fieldwork was carried out between 1983 and 1987 (Henansheng Wenwu Kaogu Yanjiusuo 1999). The site was shown to be divided into three parts: a permanent settlement occupied all the year round, workshop areas and a cemetery. A complex of subsistence strategies, which include japonica rice cultivation, animal domestication, as well as hunting, fishing and gathering, were practised (Zhang 1991 ; Zhang & Wang 1998). The cultural history of Jiahu can be divided into three phases by means of stratigraphy, stylistic analysis of the material culture, and radiocarbon dating. A total of nineteen [14.sup]C dates bracket the Phase 1 occupation approximately between 7000 and 6600 BC, Phase 2 between 6600 and 6200 BC, and Phase 3 between 6200 and 5800 BC (Henansheng Wenwu Kaogu Yanjiusuo 1999:518).

More than thirty specimens of bone flutes, either intact, repairable, or in fragments, have so far been recovered from burials, with examples from all three phases. We are convinced that bone flutes, and very likely the music played by the flutes, had a special ritual function for the Jiahu people (Li et al. 2003). All the flutes were made of the ulnae, or wing bones, of the red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis Millen). This bird is appreciated for its graceful movement in traditional Chinese culture, and a sacred value is often attached to it.

Musical analysis

This paper concentrates on the musical analysis of the flutes--the determination of which notes they played and at which intervals. Test data of five flutes from different phases are presented here. The "Stroboconn", a sound-analysing instrument, was used to determine the frequency of the sound produced by each hole (Zhang et al. 1999). Each flute was tested several times. Minor discrepancies existed between tests on the same hole. Wind instruments are played with the mouth, wherein the angle, strength, and air pressure make it difficult to be precisely consistent in different trials; therefore, slight variations were anticipated. …