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The flute is a member of a family of musical instruments in the woodwind group. Like all woodwinds, flutes are aerophones, producing sound with a vibrating column of air. Unlike woodwind instruments with reeds, a flute produces sound when the player's air flows across an opening. In the Hornbostel–Sachs classification system, flutes are edge-blown aerophones. A musician who plays the flute is called a flautist or flutist.
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Paleolithic flutes with hand-bored holes are the earliest known identifiable musical instruments. A number of flutes dating to about 53,000 to 45,000 years ago have been found in the Swabian Jura region of present-day Germany, indicating a developed musical tradition from the earliest period of modern human presence in Europe. While the oldest flutes currently known were found in Europe, Asia also has a long history with the instrument. A playable bone flute discovered in China is dated to about 9,000 years ago. The Americas also had an ancient flute culture, with instruments found in Caral, Peru, dating back 5,000 years and in Labrador dating back about 7,500 years.
The bamboo flute has a long history, especially in China and India. Flutes have been discovered in historical records and artworks starting in the Zhou dynasty. The oldest written sources reveal the Chinese were using the kuan (a reed instrument) and hsio (or xiao, an end-blown flute, often of bamboo) in the 12th–11th centuries BC, followed by the chi (or ch'ih) in the 9th century BC and the yüeh in the 8th century BC. Of these, the bamboo chi is the oldest documented transverse flute.
The cross flute (Sanskrit: vāṃśī) was "the outstanding wind instrument of ancient India", according to Curt Sachs. He said that religious artwork depicting "celestial music" instruments was linked to music with an "aristocratic character". The Indian bamboo cross flute, Bansuri, was sacred to Krishna, who is depicted with the instrument in Hindu art. In India, the cross flute appeared in reliefs from the 1st century AD at Sanchi and Amaravati from the 2nd–4th centuries AD.
According to historian Alexander Buchner, there were flutes in Europe in prehistoric times, but they disappeared from the continent until their arrival from Asia, by way of "North Africa, Hungary, and Bohemia". The end-blown flute began to be seen in illustration in the 11th century. Transverse flutes entered Europe through Byzantium and were depicted in Greek art about 800 AD. The transverse flute had spread into Europe by way of Germany, and was known as the German flute.
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