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Oldest Musical Instruments Still Play a Tune Volume 52 Number 6, November/December 1999
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] Neolithic flutes carved from the hollow wing bones of red-crowned cranes (Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Henan Province) [LARGER IMAGE]

Chinese scholars have recovered six bone flutes dating from 8,000 to 9,000 years ago, the world's oldest complete, playable, multinote musical instruments. Researchers from the Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Henan Province in Zhengzhou found the flutes, crafted from the hollow ulnae (wing bones) of red-crowned crane, among fragments of 30 others at the Neolithic (ca. 8000-2000 B.C.) site of Jiahu in central Henan Province.

The best preserved of the flutes, which are up to eight inches long and have between five and eight holes, has been played and analyzed; its tonal scale is remarkably similar to the Western eight-note, do-re-mi scale. "Here you have hard and fast evidence that the Chinese were not just making [one-note] whistles 8,000 years ago, but were capable of making instruments that produced a series of sounds," says Jenny So, curator of ancient Chinese art at the Freer-Sackler Galleries in Washington, which will present an exhibition "Music in the Age of Confucius," between April 28 and September 17, 2000.

Chinese researchers obtained 20 radiocarbon dates from charcoal, plant ash, and human bone found in association with the flutes. Garman Harbottle, a chemist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory who helped analyze results of the dating, says he is encouraging Chinese researchers to date the flutes directly using some of the fragments.

Excavations at Jiahu in the past 15 years have revealed that the site was inhabited between 7000 and 5700 B.C. While the Henan institute team has only laid bare five percent of the site, it has already yielded 45 house foundations, 370 cellars, nine pottery kilns, and thousands of artifacts of bone, pottery, stone, and other materials. More excavations are planned for the future.

A recording of the folk song "Xiao Bai Cai" ("Little Cabbage") played on one of the flutes can be heard at

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America