Thursday, January 30, 2014

9000 year old music and alcohol – a powerful mix

Excavations in 1986 and 1987 at the early Neolithic site of Jiahu, located in Henan Province, Northern China, yielded six complete bone flutes as well as fragments of approximately 30 others.

Sounds from the past

Tonal analysis of the Neolithic flutes revealed that the seven holes they contain corresponded to a scale remarkably similar to the eight-note scale of  “do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do“. This carefully-selected tone scale suggested to the researchers that the musician of the seventh millennium BCE could play music and not just single notes.

The exquisitely-crafted flutes are all made from the ulnae or wing bones of the red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis Millen). The best-preserved flute has actually been played and this presented a rare opportunity to hear musical sounds from nine millennia ago. Two audio recordings of the flutes being played are available here: WAV file 1 (4.2 Mb), WAV file 2 (1.7 Mb).

9000 year old brew

Jiahu continued to provide scientists with insights into the early lives of Neolithic peoples in this region of China as archaeo-chemist Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum sampled ceramics taken from dated layers and found traces of alcohol made from rice, honey and fruit.

Patrick McGovern on the world’s first alcoholic beverage made from grapes

Jiahu lies in the Central Yellow River Valley in mid-Henan Province and was inhabited from 7000 BCE to 5700 BCE. The site was discovered in 1962 by Zhu Zhi, late director of the Wuyang County Museum, but only in the past 15 years has significant excavation activity taken place. In addition to the musical instruments and evidence of fermentation, the site has yielded important information on the early foundations of Chinese society.

Early script

In 2003, the site was made famous when tortoise shells were discovered to have symbols carved onto them (now known as Jiahu Script). Radiocarbon dating suggests the tortoise shells found within human graves date from 6600-6200 BCE. According to some archaeologists the script bears certain similarities to the 2nd millennium BCE oracle shell script. A 2003 report interpreted the Jiahu Script “not as writing itself, but as features of a lengthy period of sign-use which led eventually to a fully-fledged system of writing.”

Insight into the origins of Chinese culture

To date, only five percent of Jiahu Neolithic village has been excavated, uncovering 45 house foundations, 370 cellars, nine pottery kilns and thousands of artefacts of bone, pottery, stone and other materials. The excavations are helping to provide an insight into the very early structures of Chinese society.

Past Horizons. 2014. “9000 year old music and alcohol – a powerful mix”. Past Horizons. Posted: December 3, 2013. Available online:

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