Hear a 17,000-year-old musical instrument made from a seashell

Credit: Science Advances.

In 1931, archaeologists came across a 17,000-year-old conch shell in an ornately decorated cave in the Pyrenees. For more than eight decades, the ancient artifact sat in the storage room of a French museum until it was re-examined by researchers. They discovered that the shell had been purposely drilled to turn the shell into a musical instrument. Remarkably, they even managed to play almost perfect instruments from the horn, showing that it still works after all these years.

Musical note hunter-gatherers

The shell originally belonged to a living organism, possibly a sea snail called Charonia lampas, judging by its characteristics. It is 31 centimeters long and 18 centimeters wide.

Initially, when excavators found the shell in Marsoulas Cave, which was adorned with all kinds of wonderful prehistoric art, they thought it must have served ceremonial purposes as a fancy drinking cup.

In reality, the conch shell is much more interesting than it seems. When scientists from France’s Center National de la Recherche Scientifique re-analyzed the artifact, they identified deliberate modifications that allowed the production of sounds with musical pitch. Besides the holes drilled at certain intervals, the craftsman also removed the top of the shell, as well as the outermost lip of the shell, allowing a player to insert their hands to modulate the sound.

Charonia’s shell bears traces of significant human-induced modifications. Credit: Science Advances.

Essentially, the modified conch shell is a musical horn, the oldest known instrument of its type. Only the bone flutes were recovered at an earlier date.

The sound of an 18,000 year old conch shell instrument.

When researchers realized the true purpose of the shell, they hired a trained horn player to offer commentary. The musician was able to play three clear notes, very close to C, D and C#.

“We already know that prehistoric men transformed many shells into portable ornaments and thus attributed to them an important body symbolism. This shell horn, with its unique sound, both deep and strong with a long-lasting reverberation, illuminates a musical dimension hitherto unknown in the context of Upper Paleolithic societies,” write the authors in the journal Scientists progress.

The inner part of the conch is decorated with a red pigment of the same type used in the fingerprints on the cave walls. This means that the hunter-gatherer musician who originally used the conch must also have been involved in painting the pictures on the walls, making this perhaps the earliest combination of music and illustrative art in history. .

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