The magic flutes

by Zhang Juzhong


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 ajar 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.

Then one of us, Zhang, the director of the excavation, was approached by Yang Zhenwei, the field director, who was excavating a grave designated only by its field label: M78 (in the convention of Chinese archaeology, M designates a burial, because mu is the Chinese word for grave). Two bone tubes, each with seven small holes drilled on one side, lay within the collection of artifacts. Neither Yang nor Zhang dared utter a word about what was racing through their minds. Although the two artifacts bore a striking resemblance to a modern Chinese folk instrument--a kind of upright bamboo flute--nothing like that had ever been discovered in China from so early a time.

The finds were unprecedented but, as it turned out, not unique. Another flute was discovered in another grave the next day, and another in still another grave. Then they just kept coming. By the end of the first series of excavations, in June 1987, twenty-five specimens had been discovered. Seventeen were intact, or nearly so, six were broken or fragmented, and two were half-finished. All were made from the ulna--a wing bone--of the red-crowned crane [see illustration on opposite page]. The naturally hollow bones were first cut to a length of between seven and ten inches, then smoothed at the ends, polished, and finally drilled on one side to make a row of between five and eight holes.

Among the flutes was M282:20, the twentieth object documented in grave M282, and the basis for the vignette at the beginning of our story. That flute was found in pristine condition and was the first to be tested. During more recent seasons of excavation, Zhang's team has uncovered still more flutes from the burials, bringing today's total to thirty-three. And more tests have been conducted on the playable flutes. Those instruments have now afforded some insight into the evolving musical knowledge and skills of people who lived millennia before the first written records of music. At the same time, we must admit that their motives for playing music and their "ear" for appropriate musical composition and sound are still steeped in mystery.

The musical cultures of the past, like the ones of today, did not exist in a vacuum. Jiahu's location was apparently quite favorable because Neolithic people occupied the site almost continuously from 9,000 years ago--near the dawn of agriculture in China--until 7,800 years ago. The archaeological work at the site to date has yielded fifty house foundations, 430 storage pits, eleven pottery kilns, 439 burials, and thousands of artifacts made of bone, pottery, stone, and other materials. The stratigraphy of the site shows that it was occupied again in historical times, beginning in the Han Dynasty (second century B.C. to second century A.D.), and continuously thereafter down to the present. The intervening time is still a blank, but so far only 5 percent of the site has been excavated; further work could well show additional periods of occupation.

One surprising discovery is that the villagers grew japonica rice, a short-grain subspecies. Many scholars have believed that rice cultivation began with the long-grain indica subspecies, a crop domesticated in the tropics and subtropics 6,000 years ago. The short-grain type arose--or so the thinking went--as the crop spread to the cooler, more northerly latitudes. The early appearance of japonica rice in the north, together with some equally early finds of both subspecies in the lower Chang Jiang valley, has complicated that picture.

Apart from cultivating rice, the Jiahu villagers hunted and fished, taking carp, crane, deer, hare, turtle, and other animals. They also collected a broad variety of wild herbs, wild vegetables such as acorns, water chestnuts, and broad beans, and possibly wild rice. And they possessed domesticated dogs and pigs.

Living Conditions in an ancient community are reflected not only in the artifacts unearthed, but also in the inhabitants' skeletal remains. Factors such as diet, disease, and mechanical stress leave indelible marks on bones. Barbara Li Smith, a forensic archaeologist at Harvard University, examined the skeletons of 248 individuals recovered in the excavations. She concluded that the villagers enjoyed reasonably good health. The Jiahu life expectancy, or average age at death, was about forty years, longer than usual for Neolithic farmers. Bone lesions from infectious disease or parasitic infection are rare. Osteoarthritis, a sign of bone degeneration with age or of the mechanical stresses of repetitive motion, appears in 38 percent of the skeletons.

As for more serious health problems, more than two-thirds of the skeletons show signs of iron-deficiency anemia. The tip-off is the presence of spongy lesions in the skull: marrow in the skull, compensating for the anemia, expands to make additional red blood cells. Anemia may reflect infection, but people whose dietary staple is grain often have a high incidence of iron-deficiency anemia simply because grain is deficient in iron.

To learn more about the Jiahu diet, archaeologists examined the ancient pottery vessels. The vessels' contents had long since decayed away, but pottery is quite porous, and the hope was that residues trapped and preserved in the minute holes might be detectable with the right kinds of high-tech equipment. Patrick McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, analyzed potsherds of sixteen jars and vases. He extracted organic chemicals from thirteen of them, finding signs of rice, honey, and grape or hawthorn fruit.

McGovern concluded that many of the pottery jars and vases were used for fermenting and storing wine or beer. The ancient villagers not only fed themselves well, but also made alcoholic drinks from surplus grain. Besides being intoxicating, McGovern maintains, alcohol may have been healthful, because it kills many disease-causing microorganisms. The villagers also offered wine or beer to the dead, placing jars and vases in many of the graves.

The excavation at Jiahu uncovered the remains of 439 juveniles and adults, buried in pits, and 32 infants, buried in urns. Some pits contained just one individual, others as many as six. The multiple interments usually represented the reburial of skeletal remains from earlier burials, though in a few cases one new, or primary, interment was added. No one knows how the individuals buried together may have been related, but they were mixed in sex and varied in age.

In thirty-seven primary burials, the skull, mandible, or other bones of the extremities are missing from the skeleton; cut marks show that they were removed when the bone was fresh. Either the individual died of the cuts, or the parts were removed soon after death. In a dozen or so examples, such as the body of the musician in grave M282, body parts were severed, but the parts remained in the grave. We think that the various manipulations of the skeletons were reserved for important members of the society, simply because they involved more labor. Their purpose at Jiahu remains obscure, but in prehistoric Europe, some human bones seem to have been circulated among the graves and the living population, presumably because they were valued or venerated.

The flutes discovered so far all came from graves, usually graves that were fairly rich in burial goods. We and our colleagues have tested the tones of six flutes that are still playable. Those tests can tell us something about the musical scales that the instruments could have produced, and from the scales we can infer something about the complexity of possible melodies. In addition, the site was occupied in three distinct phases, from 9,000 until 8,600 years ago, from 8,600 until 8,200 years ago, and from 8,200 until 7,800 years ago. A comparison of flutes from those three periods can tell us whether the scales and possible melodies became more sophisticated with time.

A flute makes a sound because the player causes the column of air in its tube to vibrate. In a vertical flute, the customary way to set the air in motion is to rest the upper end of the tube against the lower lip and blow across the opening--much the way one makes an open bottle hum by blowing across its rim. The angle and strength of the player's breath affect both pitch and sound quality, but what mostly determines pitch is the length and volume of the column of vibrating air. When the instrument is more than a simple tube, such as a flute with finger holes, the player can manipulate the size of the air column by covering or uncovering the finger holes.

Skilled musicians can get complex sounds and a variety of pitches out of an instrument by only partly covering the holes or by opening and closing them according to relatively complex patterns (known as cross-fingering). Without knowing the playing techniques of the ancient musicians, though, we were limited to testing the pitches that could be made with simple fingering. We measured the frequency of each pitch with an electronic sound-analyzing instrument called a Stroboconn.

Only two flutes have been recovered from the earliest phase of settlement; both came from the grave of an adult male. One has five holes, and so it can produce six discrete pitches, one for each hole, plus the pitch produced by the entire length of the instrument, when all the holes are covered. In two cases, however, notes are repeated an octave apart, so the musical variety is somewhat restricted. If you try constructing a scale, you wind up, in a sense, with only four notes, separated by wide gaps. Nevertheless, even such a simple scale shows that the flute players sounded more than single notes, and if one assumes that Jiahu musicians used cross-fingering and other means to vary the pitch, they could have played fairly elaborate pieces of music.

The second flute from the earliest phase of settlement has six holes [see photograph at left]. This flute can play seven discrete pitches, but again, in two cases, notes are repeated an octave apart. Thus the flute gives ready access to a five-note scale--an intriguing discovery in itself, given that a pentatonic, or five-note, scale is the basis of Chinese folk music even today. The presence of a five- and a six-hole flute in the same grave indicates that different musical scales probably coexisted during this phase of settlement in Jiahu.

About two dozen flutes were unearthed from the second phase of Neolithic settlement. Fifteen of them were intact or could be reconstructed. One of those has only two holes, but the others all have seven. Three of the seven-hole flutes are still playable, including the two that were found in grave M282, the burial of our now-famous musician.

Those two flutes alone are quite revealing. One of them, as we noted earlier, is in pristine condition, and the other, though broken into three sections in antiquity, had been carefully repaired. The ancient repair involved drilling fourteen tiny holes along the breakage lines and then tying the sections together with string, traces of which are visible. Modern laboratory technicians re-repaired the flute with glue, and to everyone's satisfaction, its tones could still be tested.

Thanks to the additional hole, each flute can play eight pitches, and despite some differences, the range of pitches and the intervals between them are similar. Those similarities led us to propose that the repaired flute was made first, and was highly esteemed by its owner. After the breakage and repair, we think, it was used as a model to cut the second flute. A tiny hole just above the bottom hole of the second flute is a telling clue [see photograph on this page]. We believe it was a test hole, drilled in an effort to match the pitch of the repaired flute, but the pitch it gave proved too high. The bottom hole was therefore drilled a bit farther from the mouth, and perhaps the little hole was plugged up. During our pitch analysis, the small hole had to be closed for the flute to produce the "right" tone.

The latest Neolithic deposits yielded seven flutes. One of them, with eight holes, is still playable. By that time the flute makers and players had become much better experienced with the acoustic capabilities of their wind instruments. They knew that by adding more holes and structuring the pitch intervals closer together, they could increase the variety of melodic structures in their music. In addition, the flutes became more standardized in pitch, presumably so that compositions could be played in a more consistent musical scale, perhaps for ensemble playing.

More evidence for the tuning of Neolithic scales has turned up at Zhongshanzhai, a site about eighty miles northwest of Jiahu and contemporaneous with the third phase of Jiahu settlement. A six-inch section of a bone flute unearthed from Zhongshanzhai has ten holes, arranged in a staggered pattern along two parallel rows. The holes are so close to one another that there is no room for comfortable fingering. Tonal tests show that the intervals between adjacent pitches closely approximate the half step (the interval, for instance, between a white key and an adjacent black key on a piano). This flute was very likely a tuning instrument, rather than one used for performing.

Unfortunately, the actual tunes played by musicians so long ago are beyond the reach of our archaeological tools. And we may never know why there were so many flutes in Jiahu. Some archaeologists speculate that the flutes were related to shamanistic rituals. If that were the case, our counts of flutes and burials imply that there was one shaman for every twenty people in the community--an unusually high proportion of ritual specialists for a farming village.

We think the music played a less esoteric role. Certainly it was an important element of community life. Given the availability of alcoholic drinks, we like to think the people of Jiahu enjoyed festive times.

Another mystery is why the villagers of Jiahu selected the wing bones of the red-crowned crane to craft their flutes. In Chinese legend, the Yellow Emperor cut flutes from bamboo, and bamboo may also have been used to make flutes at Jiahu and other Neolithic sites. But bamboo does not normally survive burial for thousands of years, so we archaeologists can be grateful for the choice of bone.

Standing nearly five feet tall, possessing an eight-foot wingspan, and bedecked with snow-white plumage accented with black and red, the red-crowned crane is an inspiring bird. The dance ritual of the male and female during courtship and pair-bonding is one of the most entertaining spectacles in the world of birds. It is replete with bows, leaps, extensions of the wings, and other dramatic gestures. The couple also performs a duet of loud, ringing calls between dances. Music is often inspired by the animal world. Did the musicians of Jiahu intend to imitate the crane's calls in their music? If so, perhaps they sought a magical assist by making flutes out of the birds' very bones.