Let's start this post by saying that tracing the exact origin of the pan pipes is an impossible task. Why is this? Well, as this post will explain it appears that many cultures across the world constructed pan pipes of their own accord. Many did not 'learn' the technique of making them from other cultures as the instrument is a very basic one to make. As you will see, there is much evidence to suggest that various versions of pan pipe were being made across all the different continents.
Pan Pipes (otherwise known as the Pan Flute) are an ancient instrument considered to be over 6000 years old. The instrument may have perhaps been born when tribes living near to rivers used the hollow plants growing nearby to turn into instruments. In truth, nobody can be sure! The earliest forms of pan pipes found in Oceania show evidence that they were constructed from one single pipe. In fact, some of these early pipes can still be found in some of the indigenous tribes from Papa New Guinea. It is believed the pipes grew more complex with wider note ranges as people began to learn about tonal differences. The pan pipes began to be constructed of longer and more numerous tubes to reflect these new findings.
The earliest documented pan pipe finding comes from the pre-Colombian civilizations in South America. In Cahuachi, Peru a set of pan pipes dating as far back as 42BC have been found. Pan pipes dating back to 32BC have also been unearthed nearby in the Chilca district. These pan pipes were made from many different materials (e.g. bone, reed, bamboo) and used in indigenous music, religious ceremonies and for dancing. And, archaeological records suggest the pan pipes from this region originated from the Aymare and Quechua civilisations and spread throughout South America and North America via trade routes.
There is evidence of pan pipes being played during the Ptolemaic Dynasty in ancient Egypt (332 - 30BC). This comes in the form of many small figurines depicting individuals playing early forms of pan pipes. An amusing anecdote is that Cleopatra VII's father, Ptolemy XII, earned the nickname of 'Auletes' (Greek for flute player), because he spent all his time playing pan pipes and neglecting his duties!
On the European continent, a set of pan pipes dating from 2500BC were found on the Cyclades Islands in the Aegean Sea. In 146BC when Rome conquered Greece they adopted many aspects of their culture and made it their 'own'. The pan pipes (or syrinx as it was called in Greek culture) is an example in that they adopted the instrument but gave it the new name 'auenis'. An interesting find was unearthed recently in the ancient city of Pompeii. After being buried underneath the volcano ash from Mount Vesuvius in 79AD, many of the items covered were preserved. Of these items frescos have been discovered which depict people playing the pan pipes. This demonstrates that pan pipes had become a part of Roman culture and were being played by the peoples.
Whilst we are on the subject, it might be of interest to explain why the pan pipes were referred to as the syrinx by the Greeks. Well, according to Greek mythology the God, Pan, fell in love with a nymph called Syrinx. She rejected him and retreated to the riverside turning into a reed to disguise herself from the following God. Pan could not find Syrinx and in his sadness cut the reed to make an instrument!
During the same period that the syrinx was being played in Greece and Rome, pan pipes were being played in China. The pai xiao was reported to be used in court ensembles and religious rituals. Evidence of their existence comes from an excavation of an 11th century BC tomb in Luyi, Henan Provence where a pai xiao constructed of over 30 pipes was among the funery goods discovered.
Two early forms of pan pipes can be found upon the African continent, the nyanja and the ngororombe. These pan pipes are still being played in the African countries of Uganda, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The origins of the ngororombe can be traced back to the Shona people who built the Great Zimbabwe kingdom (13-15th centuries BC). They still play the pan pipes to this day!
The British Museum in London has a stone bas-relief from India dating back to the Ganhara period (1st-5th centuries AD). This bas-relief depicts women making music on a syrinx, double aulos' and drum. So, a version of the pan pipes were also being played on the Indian continent many centuries ago.
Evidence of pan pipes constructed by the Viking's have also been found recently in York, England. These are unusual from the form of pan pipes that we are familiar with today as they were made from a solid block of wood in which holes were drilled. The discovery of these pipes confirms that pan pipes were being used in Northern Europe sometime between the 5th - 15th centuries AD. Perhaps the Vikings may even have encountered them during their many voyages or raids!
In more recent history, the African-American slaves were considered to have introduced a version of the pan pipes (known as 'the quills') into the United States during the late 18th century. The quills were first mentioned in recounts of plantation slave histories and, lack of evidence for these pipes existing in the region before this period suggest that it was these slaves that bought them into North American shores. The quills are still being used within United States folk music to this day.
So pan pipes were constructed and played by many different cultures throughout the world. From ancient civilisations through to those in the modern world there seems to have been a construction of pan pipes popular upon every continent. Nobody can be sure of the exact origins, if indeed there are any, but it is safe to say that since they came into being pan pipes have been a popular instrument from the inception and will, hopefully, continue to be so.
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