Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics

Audio: Listen to a 9,000 Year Old Chinese Flute—the World’s Oldest Playable Instrument

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Chinese archeologists have unearthed what is believed to be the oldest known playable musical instrument, a seven-holed flute fashioned 9,000 years ago from the bones of the red-crowned crane.

The instrument, about nine inches long, is the best preserved of six intact flutes found with fragments of about 30 others at Jiahu, a remarkably rich but little-known archeological site in the Yellow River valley in Henan Province in central China. Radiocarbon dating shows the site was occupied for 1,300 years beginning around 7000 B.C., during the early Neolithic period in China.

Nine millennia after lips last touched it, the flute was played again and its tones analyzed. The seven holes produced a rough scale covering a modern octave, beginning close to the second A above middle C. There is evidence that the flute was tuned: a small hole drilled next to the seventh hole had the effect of raising that hole’s tone from roughly G-sharp to A, completing the octave.

Email subscribers may click on the title of this post to listen to the recording.


 

Text adapted from an article by Henry Fountain writing for The New York Times, September 29, 1999.

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9000-yr-old-flute-e1484025608870

Six intact flutes found with fragments of about 30 others in Henan Province in central China. The site was occupied for 1,300 years beginning around 7000 B.C., during the early Neolithic period in China.

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