Researchers from the Australian National University believe that 2,000-year-old deer antlers may have been used as primitive chordophones

Reconstruction of the chordophone, made from a deer antler. Photo: Antiquity (2023). DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2022.170.

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A research team in Vietnam has discovered what they think could be the oldest stringed instruments ever found in southern Asia. Made from deer antlers, the artefacts are believed to be ancient examples of chordophones – a type of stringed instrument that were once used in the region’s court life, as well as for traditional music. Other examples of chordophones include zithers and monochords.

The antlers were originally unearthed in the 1990s at an archaeological site on the Mekong river, named Go O Chua. They were taken to the Long An Museum in southern Vietnam, where they remained untouched until a team from the Australian National University examined them in 2012 and 2016. In a paper newly published in the journal Antiquity, the team, led by Fredeliza Campos, give reasons as to why they could be one-stringed instruments.

This detail of an antler shows the ‘perfectly round hole’ and grooves. Photo: Antiquity (2023). DOI: 10.15184/aqy.2022.170

In particular, the researchers point to the ‘perfectly round hole’ at the end of one antler, which may have been made to fix a peg used to tune a string. The antler also appears to have a polished bridge to support the string. On the other, broken, antler, the researchers discovered grooves where a taut string might have once been attached. ‘No other explanation for its use makes sense,’ Campos said in a statement.

Both antlers measure about 348mm long, and may have come from a Sambar deer or Indian hog deer species. They date back at least 2,000 years to the pre-Óc Eo culture of the Mekong Delta.

The earliest chordophones could have been played with a bow, by a musician sitting cross-legged on the floor. It is possible, the researchers argued, that a primitive resonator might have amplified the musical effects as well.

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