The Mesolithic culture of Lepenski Vir, Serbia is one of Europe’s oldest. Discovered in 1960 and dated to 9,500–6,000 BC, the site became an instant sensation in scientific circles. What makes it special are its unique trapezoid houses, mysterious stone idols, and strange burials. Also, one of the first European contacts between the local hunter-gatherer community and the agricultural newcomers happened here.
But in the shade of all these important finds, a small object made of animal bone lies on display in the National Museum of Serbia. Unsure of its purpose, archaeologists label it an “amulet”. But perhaps this label is wrong. Perhaps what we had in front of our eyes this whole time, is the world’s oldest jew’s harp?
A brief history of jew’s harp
The jew’s harp is one of the world’s oldest musical instruments. It’s variations exist all over the globe, particularly in the Northern hemisphere. The term “jew’s harp” probably relates to European Jews, whose origins were Khazar (Euroasian steppe). But there are roughly 1,000 other local names for this instrument.
Indeed, the jew’s harp is still extremely popular in the Euro-Asian region, from Siberia and the horse-riding communities of Mongolia and neighboring “stan” countries to countries like Japan and Vietnam.
The choice of the material varies, with metal being the youngest invention. Asian jew’s harps are commonly made of reed or wood. But obviously, this type of material cannot survive in the archaeological record. The oldest jew’s harp we know of dates to the 4th century BC, and it is made from a bone of an animal. Another recently discovered harp from Siberia dates to 3rd-4th century AD, and it is made by “splintering the ribs of cows or horses”, while in the Mongolian regions the horns of deer are the material of choice.
The oldest musical instruments we know of are made of animal bones. For example, the Divje Babe flute, from modern-day Slovenia, dates to 41,000BC.
And finally, the jew’s harp has deep connections to prehistoric shamanism. Most of the Euro-Asian shamans still use it in their rituals. In certain countries, there is even evidence of a “language” made of its sounds. This secret language is similar to the better-researched “whistling languages” of highlanders or the “speaking drums” of Africa. In Siberia, it mimics the horse gallop and their shamans use it to greet the Sun.
The technique of playing the jew’s harp
To create the sound, we need to place the harp horizontally and gently bite it with our teeth. While doing so, our jaw (and our skull) become the resonance box. Next, we need to create the vibration, by moving the “trigger” of the “tongue” (mobile middle part) of the harp with the other hand. Different positions of the mouth and throat create different vibrations.
In this light, it is interesting that the object from Lepenski Vir has engraved lines on its “legs”, where the teeth should be placed. Some of the modern harps have very similar lines in the same place. And its arms also appear on modern harps, their purpose is to provide better support for fingers or mouth.
When archaeologists discover a harp, they usually find it without the middle part or “tongue”. In other words, they find only the “frame”. The reason is obvious – the reed has to be flexible, so it is not attached very firmly to the frame. Moreover, it is most likely to break even while the harp is in use.
And interestingly, the object from Lepenski Vir has a very carefully perforated hole in the middle. Was its real purpose to hold a reed?
Indeed, if the object represents an amulet, this hole would hardly have any practical use. Most of the modern reconstructions attach the object from the top, ignoring this middle hole completely.
The reason that archaeologists label this object as an amulet is probably due to its anthropomorphic form. And indeed, the association was probably a deliberate one, even for the ancients. Many old musical instruments have anthropomorphic or zoomorphic forms. In fact, before this discovery, I also explored the possibility that the object represents a goddess. (see the article at the end of this text)
But these two theories do not necessarily cancel each other out. We see a similar figurine on shamanic drums of the Northern hemisphere.
Obviously, this imagery has something to do with the shamanic three-fold World, the Earth Goddess, and the Sky-father, the cycle of life and death. The access to this spiritual realm was possible only in the state of trance, and the music was the “vehicle” on which shamans traveled there.
And while we can debate on the meaning behind this ancient symbolism, the suggestion that this Mesolithic object represents the world’s oldest “jew’s harp” seems quite plausible?