Letters to Nature

Nature 401, 366-368 (23 September 1999) | ; Received 15 February 1999; Accepted 30 July 1999

Oldest playable musical instruments found at Jiahu early Neolithic site in China

Juzhong Zhang1,2, Garman Harbottle3, Changsui Wang2 & Zhaochen Kong4

  1. Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology of Henan Province, Zhengzhou, Henan, China 450000
  2. Archaeometry Laboratory, University of Science and Technology of China, Hefei, Anhui, China 230026
  3. Chemistry Department, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Upton, New York 11973, USA
  4. Paleobotany Laboratory, Institute of Botany, Academia Sinica, Beijing, China 100080

Correspondence to: Correspondence should be addressed to G.H. (Email: e-mail: garman@bnl.gov) and requests for materials should be addressed to J.Z. For further information see http://www.pubaf.bnl.gov/pr/news releases.html

Excavations at the early Neolithic site of Jiahu1, 2 in Henan Province, China have produced what may be the earliest complete, playable, tightly-dated multinote musical instruments. Jiahu was occupied from 7000 BC to 5700 BC, considerably antedating the well known Peiligang culture3, 4, 5. Here we describe six exquisitely made complete flutes which were found in radiocarbon-dated excavation layers, along with fragments of perhaps 30 more. The flutes are made from the ulnae of the red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis Millen) and have 5, 6, 7 and 8 holes. The best preserved flute has been played and tonally analysed. In addition to early musical artefacts, the archaeological record at Jiahu1, 2 contains important information on the very foundations of Chinese society. We describe the archaeological characteristics of the Jiahu site, details concerning its dating, its place in the prehistory of the Chinese Neolithic, the ethnicity of its population and the results of a tonal analysis of a nearly 9,000-year-old musical instrument found there.