Ancient Conch Shell Makes Music After 18,000 Years

An ancient conch shell from a painted cave in southwestern France is the earliest wind instrument of its kind.

An ancient conch shell found in the Pyraneese mountains is the earliest known wind instrument of its kind. (© Carole Fritz et al. 2021 / drawing: Gilles Tosello)

(CN) — Scientists have concluded that an ancient conch shell recovered from the renowned painted Marsoulas cave in the Pyrenees mountains is the earliest wind instrument of its kind on record and reveal in a new study how it may have sounded thousands of years ago.

In their study, published Feb. 10 in the journal Science Advances, researchers at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, the Muséum de Toulouse, the Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, and the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques-Chirac discuss their findings on the conch shell that delve into the lives of the people who designed it and last played it. 

The Marsoulas cave is a small 330-foot-long limestone cave in southwestern France near Haute-Garonne, rich in upper Paleolithic artifacts and lined from top to bottom with intricate cave art. It is the first painted cave to be discovered in the Pyrenees mountain range, which spans from France to Spain.

Once open to the public, access to the cave had to be cut off due to damage from graffiti and other vandalism. Since its discovery in 1897, archeologists have studied the art, which consists of striking multicolored human and animal depictions and engravings. However, much of the artwork had been so badly damaged it was difficult to make out with the naked eye.

Previous projects have employed the use of 3D modeling and other techniques to digitally render the forgotten images, a popular technique for ancient painted caves such as this one. In 2008, artist Gilles Tosello restored and recreated a number of such images, which have been on display at the Prehistoric Park of Tarascon-sur-Ariège.

Over the years the cave has yielded important artifacts from the Magdalenian period, characterized by the people’s hunting, toolmaking, cave dwelling, and artistry. Magdalenians lived approximately 17,000 to 11,000 years ago, and are also known for their use of animal bones and antlers and a spike in exchange networks with surrounding peoples.

Early excavations unearthed two chambers of artifacts, which contained knives, scrapers, pendants made from animal bones, and a Charonia lampas shell — the conch shell. It was discovered in 1931 and kept, along with a number of other artifacts, in the Muséum de Toulouse. It caught the eyes of scientists once again during an inventory of excavated items.

The Marsoulas cave conch. (© Carole Fritz et al. 2021)

The study’s scientists suspected the conch held important symbolic meaning as it had clearly been intentionally altered. The tip of the shell has a 3.5 centimeter opening, as if someone had purposefully broken it off, and a tomography scan showed that the opening at the end has perforations cut into it. The shell seems to have been decorated with a red pigment in the same color and style as some of the famous cave paintings.

The authors believed it to be a musical instrument, or a trumpet conch. An experienced horn player was brought in to attempt to play the conch and was successful in producing three notes on the artifact, which sounded similar to C, C-sharp, and D. 

Based on the shape of the opening, the authors assume the conch was played with a mouthpiece. Later conches from Pacific Island countries, South America, and Southern Asia have also followed the pattern of using wooden or metal mouthpieces.

The scientists plan on creating and studying 3D compressions of the conch to further test their hypothesis and explore the possibility of creating more notes.

The sound of the Marsoulas conch. (Courtesy of Carole Fritz et al. 2021 / playing: Jean-Michel Court / recording: Julien Tardieu)

The reanalysis of the conch holds significant clues to the history of the people who used it. The seashell was discovered in a cave approximately 120 miles away from the nearest ocean, and the authors note that their analysis provides further evidence of the Magdalenians’ robust trade networks. 

The shell was also found along with a fragmented bear bone and a piece of charcoal. According to carbon dating analysis, these items were all from about 18,000 years ago, and since flutes and other conches previously discovered are from much later times than this, the Marsoulas conch is the oldest known wind instrument to date.

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