Musical instrument played for the first time in 17,000 years

For the first time in over 17,000 years, three musical notes resonated from an ancient conch shell modified to serve as a wind instrument.

Archaeologists say the specimen is the oldest human-made conch horn and stands out as a unique find among European artefacts from the Upper Paleolithic (around 46,000 to 12,000 years ago).

The Marsoulas conch © Carole Fritz et al. 2021

First found in 1931 in the cave of Marsoulas, nestled in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, the discoverers initially thought the seashell served as a ceremonial goblet and did not note any change noticeable by the hand of the man.

But after looking at the shell with new eyes – and advanced imaging techniques – Carole Fritz of the French National Center for Scientific Research and her colleagues determined that the cave’s occupants had carefully modified the shell to fit a mouthpiece. .

These ancient craftsmen also removed the outer edges of the shell labrum, the flared ridge that extends outward from the main shell opening, and adorned the exterior of the shell with ocher pigment patterns. – red that match the style of wall art found inside the Marsoulas cave.

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The end of the shell is broken off, forming an opening 3.5cm in diameter, according to the study published in Scientists progress. Researchers say the rupture is clearly not accidental as it is the hardest part of the shell.

In contrast, the opening of the shell shows traces of retouching (cut) and a scan revealed that one of the first coils is perforated. The red pigment used on the shell indicates its status as a symbolic object.

To confirm the hypothesis that this conch was used to produce sounds, the scientists brought in a horn player who managed to produce three sounds close to the notes of C, C sharp, and D.

The researchers speculate that a mouthpiece was also attached to the conch horn because its opening was irregular and covered with an organic coating, as is the case with more recent conch shells.

“All over the world, conches have served as musical instruments, call or signal devices, and sacred or magical objects depending on the culture,” write the authors.

“To our knowledge, the Marsoulas shell is unique in the prehistoric context, however, not only in France but on the scale of Paleolithic Europe and perhaps the world.

Carbon dating of the cave, carried out on a piece of charcoal and a fragment of bear bone of the same archaeological level as the shell, suggests that the conch is around 18,000 years old. Researchers suggest that this makes the Marsoulas conch the oldest such wind instrument.

To date, only flutes have been discovered in earlier European contexts of the Upper Paleolithic. Conchs found outside of Europe are much more recent.

Reader Q&A: When did humans first make music?

Asked by: Margaret Hutt, Amersham

The oldest musical instruments discovered in the world (bone and mammoth ivory flutes) are over 40,000 years old. But the instruments and vocals can be, well, much older. In his book The descent of manCharles Darwin wondered if our language skills started with singing, and if that was the reason for our enjoyment in music.

By studying the fossils, we can establish that once our ancestors had the horseshoe-shaped hyoid bone in their throats in a position similar to modern humans, they would have had the physical ability to sing as we do. can. This date goes back more than 530,000 years.

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