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Proto-Flutes and Yucca Stalks

What inspired early humans to take time out from their busy hunting and gathering schedule to blow across a hole in a hollow stick? Was there some element of their natural environment that encouraged them to experiment with an embouchure to create whistling sounds and steady tones?

This page presents some ideas on “proto-flutes” — natural artifacts that might have inspired the first human explorations with the basic elements of a flute: resonating air columns, creating sound using embouchure, and possibly finger holes. Note that proto-flute theories are centered mostly on creating standing waves in sound chambers using embouchures, not the crafting of stalk flutes themselves.

This is a working page, in the sense that it is a collection of related items in a line of inquiry, not a complete presentation. If you have any thoughts, ideas, information, or items to contribute, please contact me.

This page of Flutopedia is the combined work of Christine Oravec and Clint Goss. Items were contributed by Michael Graham Allen and Keith Stanford, as noted below.

Background

Work in the direction of proto-flutes was inspired by some artifacts collected by Michael Graham Allen (a.k.a. Coyote Oldman) — dried yucca flower stalks, hollow inside, with holes that were beautifully bored by some natural agent. I photographed them in November 2012. Click on any image for a larger view:

Yucca stalks with holes – collected by Michael Graham Allen, photo by Clint Goss

Yucca stalks with holes – collected by Michael Graham Allen
Photo by Clint Goss Larger image

 

Yucca stalks with holes – collected by Michael Graham Allen, photo by Clint Goss

Yucca stalks with holes – collected by Michael Graham Allen
Photo by Clint Goss Larger image

 

Yucca stalks with holes – collected by Michael Graham Allen, photo by Clint Goss

Yucca stalks with holes – collected by Michael Graham Allen
Photo by Clint Goss Larger image

 

Yucca stalks with holes – collected by Michael Graham Allen, photo by Clint Goss

Yucca stalks with holes – collected by Michael Graham Allen
Photo by Clint Goss Larger image

 

These artifacts begged some questions:

  • How were the holes in Yucca stalks created?
  • Do these drilled stalks whistle in the wind in their natural environment?
  • Could that whistling have inspired the human discovery of embouchure holes and the beginnings of flute acoustics?

The Magic Flute

In 2013, I received a copy of The Magic Flute by Kaye Feather Robinson, now published on this site and also available as a PDF file ([Robinson-KW 2012] The Magic Flute — A Journey in Time and Music). It tells the story of an afternoon journey in October 2006 to a petroglyph site in Utah by Feather, Peter Phippen, Jan Seiden, and Cecelia Turbyville. Here's are some excerpts:

After I finished the stories, I noticed a yucca stalk on the floor. … I told Peter that the teachings were over and it was time to give an offering of Flute Music. … He saw what others did not see. He saw six small holes that tiny critters had left in the old hollow stick. … “I think I can play the stick.” Peter surprised everyone with this statement. I thought I knew plants and plants usages. But this was new to me.

He picked up the stick and so began the music of the Yucca. With spiffy suit and shiny shoes, Peter crawled up into the circular place below the Great Teacher and began the haunting music. Time stopped. Peter forgot to look at his watch. The need to get back to the reception was no more. The World stood still and the music of the ancient ones blended with the music of today. The Ancient Flute Players came alive through Peter’s breath. Plant united with Man. Past united with Present. The Center Place was vibrating with new life. The hum of the Universe was heard once again. We were one.

In June 2015 I found this description by Peter Phippen of this potential origin for the embouchure hole, the earliest mention of which I am aware. From [Crawford 1999b]:

I live in Wis[consin] and in my backyard there is a cane-like plant that bugs burrow into to hibernate for the Winter. One Spring I noticed a flute-like sound coming from one of these stalks. Upon investigating, I found that a bug had left a small hole in the side of the stalk, making a flute-like sound when the wind blew. Could early man have stumbled onto something like this? If so, the cane or bamboo flute would have come first. Perhaps the earliest flutes were one- or two-note flutes with no holes, with the second note and possibly a few overtones (depending on the length of the instrument) being achieved by over blowing.

Yucca and related plants

The group of plants that might be considered for proto-flutes includes yucca, sotol, and agave.

An excellent primer on these plants can be found on The Agaves and Nolinas page of the Saguaro-Juniper web site.

Bee

Yucca plant with inflorescense.
Photo courtesy of Keith Stanford Larger image

These plants produce an inflorescense — a cluster of flowers arranged on a stem. The stem can be composed of a main branch or a complex arrangement of branches.

The photo at the left, courtesy of Keith Stanford (Kieta [key-eh-tah]) of CherryCows Flutes shows a small yucca plant with two inflorescense stalks - an old, dried stalk and a new stalk emerging. Kieth describes this picture:

Here are a couple of pictures I took last week down on my ranch by Tombstone, AZ. You can see the old stalk on top of this small Yucca, and the ‘new’ stalk just starting to come out.

These stalks grown at an unbelievable rate of about two feet per month.


Ethnobotany

These excerpts from [Gibbs 2003] (pages 2-1 and 6-7) and gives some background on the ethno-botany of yucca and related plants in the San Andres National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico:

The San Andres Mountains contain five general plant communities, including desert shrub, desert riparian, grass-shrub, mountain shrub and piñon juniper. Vegetation found within the San Andres National Wildlife Refuge includes needle and thread grass (Stipa comata), gramma grass (Boteuloua spp.), mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus montanus), prickly pear cactus (Opuntia spp.), agave (Agave spp.), Yucca (Yucca spp.), and ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). Higher elevations contain stands of piñon pine (Pinus edulis) and juniper (Juniperus monosperma). Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) and apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa) are found around springs and major drainages ([RMC 1998]).

While still speculative, several studies of the Apache Indians can be valuable in understanding prehistoric subsistence patterns. Basehart’s (1973) study ([Basehart 1973]), for example, based on ethnographic research, examines water gathering, agriculture, and place names with territorial references. The study provides a long list of usable stone, animal, and plant resources in semi-desert brush, grassland, woodland, and forest ecozones. His study strongly indicates that almost every plant was of some subsistence, medicinal, or architectural value. The four wild food crops that proved most important, primarily for food storage purposes, were mescal, datil fruit from Yucca bacatta, piñon nuts, and mesquite beans ([Basehart 1973]). The majority of all the wild foods utilized by the Mescalero are known to exist within 2 km of the bajada slope ([Johnson-M 1991]).

Who drilled the holes?

What creatures made those holes in the yucca stalks?

Several citations from ethno-botanists provide some clues. From [Castetter 1938], page 51 ¶2:

Small quantities of honey, the product of large wild carpenter bees, were occasionally obtained from agave flower stalks by the Maricopa ([Spier 1933], page 73 ¶3 — see below), while in Havasupai territory wild carpenter bees had their hives in flower stalks of dead agave ([Spier 1928], page 108 ¶3 — see below).

From [Spier 1933], page 73 ¶3:

Honey was occasionally obtained form the flower stalks of mescal, but these contained very little. This was the product of large bees (mŭspo'kwĭni'lyȧ, "black bee"). This classification of "bees" is rather interesting: working bees were called flies (xalyȧsmo''kwĭlyȧvi'na); another bee with a yellow back (not a hornet) was mŭspo'cilyamŏ'kkȧkwĭ'sĭc; a fourth variety, resembling a was was mŭspo'kwĭsĭ'c, "yellow bee." The nests of working bees were found and the insects killed individually, but their honey was not eaten.

From [Spier 1928], page 73 ¶3:

Wild bees hive in dead logs and the flower stalks of dead mescal.

According to Brad Young of 4 Wind Flutes, (information he provided in an open forum for flute makers on May 4, 2013):

In the desert, carpenter bee females nest in sotol and various yucca and agave bloom stalks, or they may take up residence in dead tree trunks and limbs, firewood or wooden structures. Beginning in the spring, a female, like a miniature carpenter, will burrow a half-inch-diameter horizontal tunnel so perfectly circular that it could have been produced by a power drill. She leaves, in her wake, a small pile of sawdust beneath her construction site. Within her tunnel, which extends perhaps six to 10 inches deep into wood, she excavates a gallery where she deposits her eggs.

Here is a photo of a nest, or “gallery”, created by carpenter bees in a 2×4 piece of wood:

Carpenter bee nest (gallery) in a 2×4 piece of wood.

Carpenter bee nest (gallery) in a 2×4 piece of wood.
Photo April 25, 2011 by Wikimedia user Belchergb Larger image

Here is a photo provided by Keith Stanford from his Native Yucca Stalk Flute Making Manual ([Stanford 2012]) showing “a perfect, insect-made bore, except that it is too narrow for what I wanted, so I gouged it out wider. The yellow in the photo is the natural insect bore”:

Insect-bored and gouged channels in a yucca stalk

Insect-bored (left) and gouged (right) channels in a yucca stalk.
Photo courtesy of Keith Stanford Larger image

Keith Stanford

Flute maker Keith Stanford (Kieta [key-eh-tah]) of CherryCows Flutes provided a first-person experience with sotol plants and their inhabitants. From an email on May 3, 2013:

Last summer, I harvested about a dozen Yucca-stalks and was driving down the Interstate back to Tucson. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw what appeared to be a black bat hovering near my ear. After trying to control the resulting swerve across both lanes of the highway, I was able to get my SUV stopped and I bailed out of my vehicle. Now remember, there are cars speeding by at 75 MPH and it is about 105 degrees in the shade … I was in the sun … and I am running around the vehicle like a madman trying to open all the doors.

Out flew about a half dozen MONSTER-sized black bumble bees! They came out of those large holes in the Yucca-stalks. Interesting side note, when I got back to Tucson I laid these Yucca-stalks on my work bench outside, and for about two weeks I had two black bumble bees hovering around … even after I moved the Yucca-stalks to a different location away from my house.

Bee

Bee photographed by Keith Stanford  Larger image

Later in 2013, Keith captured one of the critters on his cell phone. From an email on October 28, 2013:

I was out harvesting Sotol-stalks and after I got the batch home I commenced to cutting them all to the proper length for flutes.

While I was doing this, I noticed my dog, who was standing next to me, started twisting her head the way dogs do when they hear something that is ‘odd’ to them. So I turned off the band-saw to see if I could hear what was of interest to her, and out popped a bee from one of the holes on the Sotol-stalk and landed on my book.

(It was buzzing quite loudly on it's exit from the stalk, but once it exited it was quite lethargic and didn't fly off. Just sort of crawled around for a while. I think it had already passed its usefulness as an insect and was about ready to call it quits.)

I grabbed my cell phone and snapped this picture for y'all. You now have an actual picture and a bona fide witness for Flutopedia of a real live insect that made the holes in these stalks!


Evidence for Yucca Flutes in the Archaeological Literature

This section is an analysis by Christine Oravec, version 3 dated April 2, 2014.

Published reports of flutes made of yucca stalks may be found in the work of archaeologist Walter Hough. In 1901 and 1905 he accompanied expeditions to the Mogollon area of west central New Mexico. Two organizations sponsored the expeditions. The first was a group of private individuals that later founded the Southwest Museum of the Archaeological Institute of America, at that time located near Pasadena CA. The second was the United States National Museum, a division of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. The artifacts collected during the expeditions were distributed between the two organizations. After the 1905 expedition Hough returned to the USNM. He eventually became head curator of anthropology and spent the rest of his career documenting the Smithsonian’s vast collection of Native American artifacts ([Pavesic 1999], page 140).

Hough published two reports mentioning yucca flutes unearthed during the expeditions. The first report included only a brief statement about the instruments themselves: “Music was also a pastime of these ancients, who used flutes of reed and yucca stalks” ([Hough 1907], page 27). Nevertheless his identification of the artifacts as made of yucca was credible. Hough was an ethnobotanist as well as an archaeologist, and he published several articles on succulents and their use among such Southwestern native tribes as the Hopi ([Judd 1936] Walter Hough: An Appreciation, page 477).

In 1914 Hough published another report for the Smithsonian ([Hough 1914]) that commented upon and illustrated artifacts of flutes. These were specifically identified as excavated at the Tularosa and Bear Cave sites in the Mogollon region. Under the title “Flute Pahos” he included detailed descriptions and pictures of flutes made of cane, reed, yucca slats and yucca fibers. In particular, the illustration shown in Figure 330 represented a flute paho made of a single hollowed-out yucca stalk with no identifiable breath or finger holes.

[Hough 1914], page 125 [Hough 1914], page 126 [Hough 1914], page 127

[Hough 1914], pages 125–127  Larger Image  Larger Image  Larger Image

 

Note: In this section of the report Hough frequently used the term “paho.” Otherwise known as “prayer sticks,” pahos were solid pieces of wood or vegetal fiber decorated with feathers, twine and paint. They were primarily used as ceremonial objects. The Hopis, for example, inserted small sticks made of willow or cottonwood topped with feathers into the ground in front of altars during the Flute Ceremony. These sticks functioned as symbolic flutes ([Payne 1993], pages 19 and 55–56).

Apparently Hough distinguished pahos representing flutes from other kinds of pahos by their length (from 9.25 to 12.5 inches), their straight shape, and the fact that they were bored from end to end. As for their functionality as musical instruments, Hough did not require that a hollow stick should display identifiable breath and finger holes to qualify as a conventional flute (Figure 327). He appeared however to be more confident when a stick did display such holes (Figure 328). Hough’s criteria evoke the possibility that some ancient Southwestern rim-blown overtone flutes may have required neither breath holes nor finger holes, in part because of their ceremonial significance.

In 1950, Paul S. Martin conducted another excavation of the Tularosa cave complex and confirmed the presence of flutes made of cane. See The Tularosa Cave Flutes.

More information might be obtained from Walter Hough's original Field Notes ([Hough 1905]).

More Literature References

For additional references, see the section of citations on the Ethnobotany References page, in particular [Hough 1897] The Hopi in Relation to Their Plant Environment.

Artifacts

NMM 4044

National Music Museum, Vermillion, South Dakota. #NMM 4004. Courting flute, Apache Nation, Southwestern United States, 19th/early 20th century. End-blown, notched flute of vegetal stalk, perhaps the bloom stalk of an agave, a yucca variety, covered in thinly-processed leather. Geometric designs cover leather surface. Cut cowrie shells and colored beads are suspended from leather tassels. Attached leather straps for carrying and storing. Played by covering all but the notch with the mouth and directing the air stream to split over edge of wood. Attached to the flute are thin leather strips bound with wrapped brass wire, to which are attached blue “padre” beads, purple Venetian beads, and cowrie shells (with tops cut off). Arne B. Larson Collection, 1979.

See the web page on this artifact on the National Music Museum web site for more information on the blue “padre” beads and other information:

NMM 4004 - Top View
NMM 4004 - Left View
NMM 4004 - Mouthpiece / Notch

[Hough 1914], pages 125–127  Larger Image  Larger Image  Larger Image

Iconography

This section surveys all rock art images that we know of that juxtapose flute players with plants that appear similar to yucca.

This image of a rock art panel near the San Juan River, near Bluff, Utah was published in [Manning-SJ 1992], figure 20. Manning states that the plant image “resembles” yucca.

It was also analyzed in [Slifer 1994], figure 148, who state (pages 89–90) that:

[O]ne interesting petroglyph panel portrays a row of figures: five fluteplayers to the right and four fluteplayers to the left of a centrally placed plant form (yucca in bloom?). All nine fluteplayers are phallic and wear and unusual variety of head-dresses; one is humpbacked.

Christine Oravec notes that “From my personal experience, it is difficult but not impossible to distinguish rock art depictions of plants according to species. Most are corn. Having seen well-defined corn depictions, however, and noting the sheer number of flower and leaf stalks in this depiction and their relative directions with relationship to the main stalk, I think Slifer and Duffield made a pretty good guess.”

Nine flute players facing a central plant form

Nine flute players facing a central plant form. Near Bluff, Utah.
After figure 20 from [Manning-SJ 1992] Larger image

Here are images based on Christine Oravec's recent publication Yuccas, Agaves, Butterflies and Flute Players: The Significance of San Juan Basketmaker Rock Art in the Flower World ([Oravec 2014]). These images are based on the figures indicated, but re-composed from the original photographs:

Flute player and agave stalk, Butler Wash, Utah.

Flute player and agave stalk,
Butler Wash, Utah.
Figure 10, [Oravec 2014]
Photo: Joe Brame Larger image

 

 

Flute player and agave stalk, Butler Wash, Utah.

Detail of flute player and agave stalk, Butler Wash, Utah.
Figure 10 (detail), [Oravec 2014], Photo: Joe Brame Larger image


Agave plants flanked by a flute player, Johns Canyon, Utah.

Agave plants flanked by a flute player, Johns Canyon, Utah.
Figure 40, [Oravec 2014], Photo: Joe Brame Larger image

Agave plants flanked by a flute player, Johns Canyon, Utah.

Agave plants flanked by a flute player,
Johns Canyon, Utah.
Figure 40 (detail), [Oravec 2014]
Photo: Joe Brame Larger image


Narratives

Woodpecker Holes in a tree

Woodpecker holes in tree.
Photo courtesy of Ray Urbaniak Larger image

Can narratives tell us something about proto-flutes?

Here are six narratives in the Origin of the Native American flute section of the Narratives page on this site, and a very brief summary of the source of the flute:

  • Comanche Flute Origin ([Bee 2006]): “a man who had suffered greatly … had a dream … old cedar trees … dead branches in which the woodpeckers had drilled holes … wind blew, creating a sweet and soothing sound”.
  • The Sound of Flutes ([Erdoes 1976], [Wapp 1984]): “ a young hunter … meat was scarce … redheaded woodpecker … alighted on a cedar tree and began tapping and hammering on a dead branch … a gust of wind … the hunter heard that beautiful sound right”.
  • The Origin of the Courting Flute ([Deloria 1961], [Wapp 1984]): “a youth who … loved only one maiden … heard human voices coming from a grove of trees … two … unsurpassably handsome young men … their bodies seemed to emit glimmering light … had with them a long flute and one began to play … from the mouth of this flute, which was made like that of the gar, came a sweet, piercing sound”.
  • The Origin of the Flageolet ([Densmore 1923] Mandan and Hidatsa Music, pages 80–84): “Old Granny (a.k.a. the Old Woman Who Never Dies) … went into the field and got a large sunflower stalk. She took a long section of this, bored a hole lengthwise through it, and cut seven holes in one side of it. She said the seven holes represented the seven months of winter, and told the boy that when he blew in it something would come out of it which would resemble snow. It was her intention to bring the snow to punish the two men for frightening the little boy”.
  • Flute Origin Story from “The Whirlwind and the Elk in the Mythology of the Dakota” ([Wissler 1905], pages 262–266): “a young man … fell in love with the daughter of a wealthy man … [he] saw a man, scarcely visible. The man looked old, and his hair was white … gave him a thick red stick wrapped in sage grass … ‘you are to go out and circle around the camp blowing upon this flageolet’ … The flageolet was inside of the grass bundle. This is the way they got the flageolet”.
  • The Legend of the Flute — Brule Sioux ([Erdoes 1984], pages 275–278): similar to The Sound of Flutes, described above.

Next Steps

One of the next steps in this line of inquiry would be to try some basic experiments. The idea would be to set up yucca stalks with naturally bored holes and a hollow core in a controlled environment where a wind could be driven at the stalks at varying angles and speeds.

 

 
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To cite this page on Wikipedia: <ref name="Goss_2017_yucca"> {{cite web |last=Goss |first=Clint |title=Proto-Flutes and Yucca Stalks |url=http://www.Flutopedia.com/yucca.htm |date=30 March 2017 |website=Flutopedia |access-date=<YOUR RETRIEVAL DATE> }}</ref>