Development of the flute in the dawn of history

It seems, the transverse flute was the last of all flutes to be invented. It is assumed, that the nomadic people from Central Asia invented the instrument, which came to Europe together with the sheeps. The flute probably showed up at the end of stone age. During antiquity the instrument was a rarity. Another explanation is that the flute was autonomously developed in two different areas independently.

In India the transverse flute appears in the first century before christ in a very short form. Over the years the instrument became longer until it reached in the 2. to 4. century the dimensions of today. Indian mythology says that god Krishna brought the flute to the humans.

The Etruscans used transverse flutes around fifths or fourths century before Christ.

The following examples of findings showing flutes, are not easily classified. They are only fragments not giving a complete picture.

The very first flutes from prehistorc times were made of animals bones. Unfortunately it is for most of the findings not possible to tell, how this instruments where to be played. In some cases it is not even possible to tell, if the pieces are made intentionally. There are mostly only fragments left.

Very early findings are from southern Germany (Geißenklösterle near Blaubeuren). The flutes found there were made of mammoth ivory and are probably about 35.000 years old. Beside those, instruments made of birds bones were found. There might have been flutes made of less durable materials, but this naturally can not be verified.

First records of flutes are part of chinese poesie (Schï-djing). Flutes are given the symbol tschï. At the start of the third century after Christ, this symbol is non-ambigously connected to the flute. In this book it is said that the symbol already existed before Christ. The article does not say, though, if the meaning has always been the same.

In Egyptian tomb hieroglyphs an inscript was found, which said, that musicians playing the flute superbly please the heart. The sort of flute is not apparent from this.

An indian tomb (Stupa Sanchi) from the first millenium after christ shows reliefs of fluteplayers. Those instruments are kept to the left side. The first reliefs showing flutes played to the right side are from a temple from Java.

In old Greece the flute seemingly was unknown. Not until the Hellenic era a new word appears meaning the flute: Photinx. Some philosophers thought that flutes were a bad influence to people as allegedley they led to "effeminacy and demoralisation".

The earliest clear picture of a transverse flute is to be found on an Etruscan relief from the vicinity of Perusa. It originates form the second or first century before christ. The Etruscans seem to have liked this instrument as there are many pictures left from their culture, showing flutes.

Even coins showing flutes are passed on. For example one from the small town Baniyas (formerly Caesarea Panias) coined in 169 after christ. The reason for the many depictions of flutes in this region is the god pan, to whom a grotto near the town is devoted.

To Europe came the flute probably via the Slavonic countries. One reference for this is a fresco from the 11. century in a cathedral in Kiev.

The Romans inherited the transverse flute from the Etruscans. The Latin noun "tibia" is used to title the shinbone as well as the instrument, showing againg the early history of the flute.

Rene Leroy - Die Flöte
Gefion Landgraf: Die Flöte
Pierre-Yves Artaud: Die Flöte
Lexikon der Flöte
Author: Claudia Haider; Last updated 13.04.2013