The Flute's Earliest History

This article was published by San Diego Flute Guild Newsletter, January/February 2007, Volume 21 Issue 1, 2007-01-03.

Mankind does not know when it first began making music. Music historians can only conjecture as to when our most distant ancestors discovered and began to utilize pitch, rhythm, and other elements of music — possibly first as singing. As a result of the paucity of archaeological evidence, we also do not know when musical instruments were first created, or even their form.

It is possible that the earliest musical instrument capable of producing notes of more than one pitch, was the flute. That is because, of all the multi-pitched instruments, an open-holed flute is the only one requiring no moving parts, but instead just two or more fingering holes. The primordial flute was probably made of bamboo, and longitudinal, like a recorder, and not transverse, as are modern flutes. That is because the simplest and most intuitive mouth hole needed to generate the vibrating column of air, would have been the open end of the flute, and not a non-fingering hole cut into the side of the flute.

According to a September 1999 report from the Associated Press, the earliest known flutes in the archaeological record, dating from 7000 BCE, were uncovered in what is now Jiahu, in the Henan Province of China, in the Yellow River Valley. The excavation site revealed other Stone Age artifacts, including pottery, tools, and weapons.

These flutes had been carved from the wing bones of the red-crowned crane. Of the 36 flutes discovered at the site, unfortunately, 30 were fragmented, and five had cracks of various sizes that prevent them from now producing any notes. Fortunately, one flute was found intact, making it the world's oldest still-playable musical instrument. Now a mottled brown color, and possessing seven fingering holes, this ancient Chinese flute produced a sound described by the scientists as reedy, thin, and yet pleasant — like a recorder. A specialist in radiocarbon dating stated that the flute can produce a full octave, and even has a tiny hole drilled near its lowest hole, apparently to correct an off-pitch tone.

Believed to be 9000 years old, these flutes are twice as old as musical instruments of early Egypt, Mesopotamia, and other ancient civilizations. The flutes also indicate a level of cultural sophistication within early China not previously known to archaeologists. When the American and Chinese scientists blew gently into the intact flute, they created musical notes that had not been heard on earth for nine millennia — a remarkable thought, and a testament to the important role that music plays in human life.

We can look over the gulf of time, and salute people who may have been the world's first flutists.

Copyright © 2006 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.
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