Bone flutes and whistles of New York

The following is a reprint from the World Flutes Forum of the International Native American Flute Association newsletter. Volume 4, 2000.
Flutes and whistles from the Lamoka Lake and the Frontenac Island cultures are observed, measured, reproduced, and played upon.


After flutin’ for some number of years now, it’s always wonderful to play flutes made by a variety of makers. Some are soft while others are loud and demanding to be heard. If one is intuitive enough, one might be able to learn so many things about the person behind the flute. This is what I was hoping to do during a visit to the Rochester Museum and Science Center. http://www.rmsc.org/. What’s at the center? Plenty! If you have a chance to visit, go by all means. It houses the discoveries of archaeologist, Dr. William Ritchie. His lives work was uncovering and studying the ancient Indian cultures. The fact is a valuable chunk of history has been preserved. On my way to the Museum I saw many new developments and acres of bulldozed land and thought about the many remains that are destroyed every year due to “progress”. Ritchie’s respectful handling and treatment of these artifacts helps us reconstruct the lifestyles of those who inhabited New York from contact to 8,000 years ago.
As a young boy, the pictures in Ritchie’s, “The Archaeology of New York State” jumped out at me and seemed so important. I could not understand why no one else was excited about these discoveries. It was the source of boundless imaginings about the activities of the Native peoples in the area of my hometown, Cohoes, N.Y. This is where the Mohawk and Hudson rivers come together. And now as a flute maker and performer, I was going to see the bird bone flutes up close. My curiosity and reverence for historical content drove me, in a way to make some reproductions. It would be wonderful if I could hear the notes, the palette of colors used by these ancient musicians.
By now many of you interested in such matters, have heard of the Neanderthal bear bone flute found in Slovenia. The results from dating proclaim an age of 60,000 to 82,000 years old. http://www.sciam.com/0997issue/0997scicit4.html   A set of flutes from the Jiahu-Henan Province, China, are dated to 9,000 years old. They are made of red crested crane ulnae and quite playable. www.bnl.gov/bnlweb/flutes.html. Check out page 104 of National Geographic, June 2000. It’s a 32,000-year-old bone whistle from Germany. A 6,000 year old, three holed deer bone whistle from Hungary are among the many European remains. Now we are in the lab of the museum looking at 6,000 year old eagle bone whistles from New York. They are at once, strikingly similar to the eagle bone whistles used for ceremony today. There were other whistles made of thigh and wing bones of various birds with three and four holes. A few whistles had an incised nested chevron design with a hint of red ochre filling. This design is also found on Stone Age whistles discovered in Spain and France. One wing bone whistle had a notch carved around the rim so as to accept some form of cordage and keep it from sliding off.
I sincerely believe that a particular four-holed heron thighbone whistle from the Frontenac Island site is as historically significant as the above-mentioned instruments. I will focus on this whistle because there’s enough of it to measure, make an accurate reproduction and explore the musical possibilities. Why is it important? First, the whistle is complete. Second, it is obvious to a whistler, which end to blow on. Third, it is highly likely the whistle had an internal duct. Fourth, this artifact weights in at 4,500 years of age. Fifth and most significant is the fact that this whistle was part of a cache of fine grave offerings including flint knives, ground slate points, a whetstone, awls, antler flakers, and perhaps one of the oldest bone combs found in North America. These are offerings accompanying a 19-year-old male. The whistle was laid across his left forearm in an extended grave, suggesting prominence among the tribal members. In fact, only the males of this culture are buried with flutes or whistles. A photo of this Frontenac Island dweller is on page 123 of, The Archaeology of New York State, William Ritchie, 1965, Purple Mountain Press, Ltd., reprinted 1994. I do not have permission to publish the original photos but offer drawings for the time being. Measurements are included here as well.

Fig.1. A. is an elderberry reproduction of the Frontenac Island flute. I needed to think subjectively during construction. It seems that this whistle survived because the soil it was buried in was slightly alkaline. Bone artifacts deteriorate rapidly in acid soils. Any deterioration would be likely in thinner walled areas or the spongy, more porous sections at the ends of bird bones. The whistles at the museum ranged in quality, from porous and worn, to a porcelain white as fresh as yesterday. If one corrects for wear, the reproductions should have slightly smaller embouchure holes and slightly longer barrels.

The embouchure holes on worn whistles seem a bit large. The resulting sound would most likely be airy and less likely to play overtones. Not all of the whistles betrayed the technologic approach to constructing the air ducts. Fig.1 whistles have embouchure holes with a U shaped cutting edge, which suggest airflow from the opposite direction. The technique of cutting a plug with the top shaved to form a duct against the inside wall of the bone, is highly suggested.

They’re where several variations of embouchure holes, (fig.2) some very cleverly done, very precise, deliberate, and not unlike whistles of other cultures. The cutting, or splitting edge on almost all the whistles was worked to a sharpened edge. Some experimenting showed that wooden plugs invariably cracked bird bones when exposed to excess moisture. Bee’s wax, then and now, was readily available and easier to mold and tweak into a fine voice. I did inquire as to whether or not any residues or materials inside the whistles had been saved for study. The reply was, “not to the museum’s knowledge”. Therein lies the problem of early archaeology. No matter how careful Ritchie worked, in removing these whistles and cleaning them up, he may have inadvertently destroyed some clues to Lamokan technology.

There is another embouchure type common to this collection of whistles. Figure 4 illustrates a whistle with an elongated oval hole, sometimes in the center or off to one side at various distances. There’s two common ways these whistles give voice. The use of a “hump” of wax to create a wind way and cover the half towards your mouth with birch bark and a leather tie, making this a whistle. This is the classic Lakota Eagle bone approach. A very fine Burmese flautist and friend showed me three cane flutes he received from an aging master. Each whistle was in a different key and utilized this very same oval and bee’s wax duct method. For your information, I could not distinguish the Burmese tuning from the Native American southern style. I would strongly recommend getting your hands on some traditional Burmese flute music. The slurs and bends are so gracefully executed. Listen and incorporate them into your bag o’ tricks.

A second technique would be to blow over the oval much like a transverse or classical flute. Technically these instruments would be true flutes. My reproductions can give voice either way. A flute gifted to me a while back inspired one argument for this technique. It was found at the Caroga site near Ephratah, N.Y. The stratum was dated at about 1500 AD. Of course it may have been much older, possibly part of a medicine bundle and in the family for hundreds of years. It appears to be a large wing bone about ¼” in diameter and three inches long. The embouchure hole is a bit off center and square. Only one side of the square is sharpened (figure 3). I believe this gives away the technique. One can produce four distinct pitches by covering either end. Yes, there are African flutes that are played this way as well.

A bit about the tools used. Figure 5 is a detail of a flint drill or “gimlet”. I knapped this as close to the Lamokan examples as I could. It is hafted onto a piece of Osage orange wood with sinew. It works fine on bird bone. The Eskimo bow drill shown in figure 6 is perfect for drilling harder and thicker deer bones. That’s a ¼” steel spade bit mounted in the drill. Also shown are a couple of Onondaga flint and chalcedony scrapers and micro flakes that are fine for shaping the embouchure hole. A coping saw with a fine-toothed blade is sufficient for cutting off the ends. A few small rasps round out the compliment of tools necessary to make a simple bone whistle. For finishing, a wad of saw grass or steel wool to polish with. Use some bee’s wax and walnut oil to bring out the shine.

Power tools are a bit aggressive, use them at slow speed and don’t horse ‘em. There’s no need to describe the preparation of the “raw” bone. I have included a fine reference that’ll cover this subject.
There are many examples of bone flutes in museums and collections from around the world to draw on. It must be noted that bone varies in length, width, and thickness. Even the cross section may be round, flattened, or even square. These variations will affect tuning but on a grand scale there is a sort of standardization of available materials.

That is, each continent has its indigenous birds of prey; cranes or heron type birds, and pheasant or turkey types. Combine this with the fact that we five fingered have ten and you need two or three to hold the instrument, thus freeing up at least seven to play with. These seven can stretch only so far apart. This whittles finger hole positioning down a bit, and even more severely on three and four holed whistles. This may explain why I can use a five-holed minor pentatonic Native American flute to play old Lemko (southern Poland) or Chuvash (Volga Russian) tunes. It may explain an instance when I played what I thought was a totally original melody only to have it pointed out that it was very near to a Mandan love song. Many flute enthusiasts have related similar experiences.

The thin walled bird bone is not forgiving when it comes to finger hole placement. That is, when the hole is drilled your committed. You can make the hole larger to raise the pitch a bit, but it is not thick enough to “tweak” by undercutting. Besides, tweaking implies the note is not right and we must force it to conform. These whistles leave one with the impression that the makers made the holes and trusted their placement. It would be fair and accurate to say that no two flutes or whistles were the same. Before the idea of scale temperament made it’s way across the Atlantic, tuning was most likely of a personal nature, free of restraints. I would not rule out using finger width for measuring the space between holes. Most of the multi-holed instruments imply very small fingers indeed. Other means relative to spiritual matters, even instruction through vision or dreams may have entered into the formula.

This writing has been an outlet for my personal joy of discovery. It was meant to be informative and in no way political. I have been urged to speak of how the two elders felt that day at the museum. I wish not to betray their medicine out of profound respect. But I can tell you feelings were expressed deeply in the presence of five thousand year old Eagle bone whistles. Repatriation is another subject I was requested to discuss. This is an excerpt of correspondence I’ve received. “While the Oneida Indian nation builds it’s future at lightning speed, Bear Clan leader Brian Patterson rebuilds the nation’s past one day at a time…In March, The Rochester Museum and Science Center returned the remains of 25 Oneida Indian people who had been buried in five Madison county sites, known to be Oneida villages in the 1600s. The museum also returned 45 funerary objects… The Oneida people were pleased and honored to have the remains returned,” Patterson said. “The bones of my people have graced this land since time immemorial and to be able to right a great wrong is a great responsibility.” Enough said.
In closing, I sincerely thank the folks at the museum for their generosity and respectful treatment of things present and past. My thanks to the Elders and all the flute makers I’ve met over the years.

  • The Archaeology of New York State. William A Ritchie. 1965. Purple Mountain Press. Fleichmanns, N.Y.
  • Working with horn and skeletal materials. www.dnaco.net/~arundel/bone
  • Music of the ages. Glenn R. Morton. http://www.glenn.morton.btinternet.co.uk/dmd.htm
    Check out some of the great references Mr. Morton includes.
  • Flute Magic: An introduction to the Native American Flute. Tim Crawford. Dr. Kathleen Joyce-Grendahl, Editor. This is a very extensive and organized publication. Great info on bone flutes of the Southwest.