Nearly eight decades after it was discovered, a conch shell horn has been played for the first time in about 18,000 years. The shell was recovered in 1931 in Marsoulas Cave, the first decorated cave to be found in the Pyrenees.
In a new study published by AAAS, experts report that the conch shell is the oldest wind instrument of its kind.
When it was first found, there were no discernable modifications and the shell was thought to have been used as a ceremonial drinking cup. But now, a team led by archaeologist Carole Fritz of CNRS has used advanced imaging techniques to reexamine the artifact.
The researchers noted that the tip of the shell was purposefully broken to form an opening that is 3.5 centimeters in diameter. This is the hardest part of the shell, and the break is clearly not accidental, explained the study authors.
On the opposite end, the shell opening shows traces of cutting. A tomography scan revealed that one of the first coils is perforated.
Furthermore, the shell was found to be decorated with a red pigment, which is characteristic of the Marsoulas Cave and indicates its status as a symbolic object.
To confirm the theory that the conch shell was used as an instrument, the scientists enlisted the help of a horn player. The musician was able to produce three sounds close to the notes C, C-sharp and D.
The team noted that the large opening on the hardest part of the shell was irregular and covered with an organic coating, which indicates that a mouthpiece was attached.
“Around the world, conch shells have served as musical instruments, calling or signaling devices, and sacred or magic objects depending on the cultures,” wrote the researchers. “To our knowledge, the Marsoulas shell is unique in the prehistoric context, however, not only in France but at the scale of Paleolithic Europe and perhaps the world.”
The Marsoulas Cave contains remnants of the beginning of the Magdalenian culture, which emerged at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum. A carbon-14 analysis that was conducted on a fragment of bear bone from the same archaeological level as the shell dated the cave back 18,000 years.
The study is published in the journal Science Advances.