The Magic Flutes

By Juzhong, Zhang; Kuen, Lee Yun | Natural History, September 2005 | Go to article overview

The Magic Flutes

Juzhong, Zhang, Kuen, Lee Yun, Natural History

Nine thousand years ago, Neolithic villagers in China played melodies on instruments fashioned from the hollow bones of birds.

Long ago in Jiahu village, an acclaimed musician passed away at the mature age of thirty-five. People who had appreciated his music flocked to the funeral ceremony. The musician's body was dressed in his finest clothing, and a turtle shell was tied to his right shoulder. In life he had often worn the shell: with a few pebbles placed inside, it rattled as he danced to his own music. One of the musician's two surviving sons, young men in their late teens, directed several helpers as they lowered the body into the rectangular earthen pit dug the day before. Then, kneeling in the grave, he separated the head from the torso with a stone ax, and carefully turned the head to face northwest-a customary treatment for special people of the time.

Leaning over the edge of the grave, the musician's other son then passed down the sixty or so offerings. His brother put the three-legged cooking pot, along with a jar and a vase containing provisions for the afterlife journey, near the head. Arrows and barbed harpoons were placed near the right leg; milling stones, awls, chisels, knives, and other offerings were set to the left of the body. Finally, the musician's two flutes, each crafted from the hollow wing bone of a red-crowned crane, were tucked on either side of his left leg. Then the son climbed out of the grave, and six or seven helpers started the backfilling with stone shovels.

We hope the reader will indulge the small license we have had to take in telling this tale. Our story is consistent with the abundant physical remains, but the burial took place long before history was written down. Yet, unlike most tales based on archaeological reconstruction, this one concludes with an episode that almost sweeps away the fog of the intervening centuries and brings the dead to life. In May 1987, more than 8,000 years after it had last been touched by human lips, one of the musician's two flutes was played again. The room was dead silent as Ning Baosheng, the flutist of the Central Orchestra of Chinese Music in Beijing, held the bone instrument at a forty-five-degree angle to his mouth. One by one, he tested the holes. The assembled archaeologists and musicians were amazed by the sound produced by a flute of such great antiquity. The tones seemed so familiar. In Europe, archaeologists have discovered the remains of even more ancient flutes, also fashioned from animal bone, but none in playable condition.

Jiahu is the name of a modern village in central China and, by extension, the name of the ancient flute-owner's village, or at least its archaeological remains. The setting is the upper valley of the Huai River, which flows east between the Huang He (Yellow River) to the north and the Chang Jiang (Yangtze River) to the south [see map on next page]. The site was discovered in 1961 by Zhu Zhi, an administrator of cultural resources, who plucked pottery shards and other material remains from the walls of wells and gullies. Archaeological excavation began in 1983, when the site was threatened by local development.

Chinese archaeologists cannot possibly excavate all sites threatened by development, but they consider Jiahu special. The artifacts collected even at the surface are as much as 9,000 years old, dating from the early Neolithic, or New Stone Age, when people first began to rely on domesticated crops and animals. Moreover, little was known about this stage of prehistory in this part of China. Six seasons of fieldwork, lasting between several weeks and several months each, were conducted between 1983 and 1987. A second round of excavations started in 2001 and is still under way.

At the outset, however, no one expected to find anything as exotic as a flute. Indeed, by the middle of the fourth season of excavation, in early May 1986, the archaeologists were beginning to feel bored, as the same arrowheads, harpoons, milling stones, spades, vessels, and other utilitarian artifacts surfaced over and over again. …

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