When scientists from the United States and China blew gently through the mottled brown instrument's mouthpiece and fingered its holes, they produced tones that had not been heard for millennia, yet were familiar to the modern ear.
"It's a reedy, pleasant sound; a little thin, like a recorder," said Garman Harbottle, a nuclear scientist who specializes in radiocarbon dating at Brookhaven National Laboratory on New York's Long Island.
Harbottle and three Chinese archaeologists published their findings in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.
The flute was one of several instruments to be uncovered in Jiahu, an excavation site of Stone Age artifacts in China's Yellow River Valley. Archaeologists have also found exquisitely wrought tools, weapons and pottery there.
Dated to 7,000 B.C., the flute is more than twice as old as instruments used in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and other early civilizations.
In all, researchers have found some three dozen bone flutes at Jiahu. Five were riddled with cracks big and small; 30 others had fragmented. The flutes have as many as eight neatly hollowed tone holes and were held vertically to play.
The Jiahu flute is considerably more recent than a flutelike bone discovered in 1995 in an excavation of Neanderthal tools in a cave in Slovenia. That artifact was believed to be more than 43,000 years old, but musicologists question whether it is an instrument.
In contrast, there is no doubt among researchers that the Jiahu artifacts are instruments capable of playing multi-note music.
Music historians and archaeologists were intrigued by the find.
"You would never have one of these flutes in a symphony. But clearly, these people knew what an octave sounded like," Harbottle said. He said the flute can make what sounds like a "do-re-mi" scale. It even has a tiny hole drilled near its hole no. 7, apparently to correct an off-pitch tone.
Scholars said the bone flutes provide further proof that prehistoric Chinese culture was not crude. Music played an integral role, perhaps combined with astronomical observations and other rituals that helped to rule their society, they said.
That the flutes were made of durable bone rather than bamboo, as later flutes were, also suggests they were culturally important, and not mere amusements. In fact, some scholars believe the Chinese written character for "sound" is a stylized representation of a vertical flute held in the mouth.
"That they would go to the trouble of constructing such instruments suggests a certain importance was placed on sound, and an attention to aesthetic concerns," said Jonathan Stock, an ethnomusicologist at the University of Sheffield in England, and a specialist in Chinese muical history.
The flutes were uncovered at Jiahu in the 1980s. Their tonal qualities initially were tested in 1987. The intact Jiahu flute remains locked in a laboratory in China, but replicas may be constructed for more tonal tests.