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Home > News > Talking Point > This is what the oldest known conch shell sounded like

This is what the oldest known conch shell sounded like

Prehistoric humans turned a seashell into a musical instrument about 18,000 years ago. A team of researchers has now released a recording of what the instrument would have sounded like

A seashell found 80 years ago in a French cave with ancient wall paintings was modified as a musical horn around 18,000 years ago, researchers have found.
A seashell found 80 years ago in a French cave with ancient wall paintings was modified as a musical horn around 18,000 years ago, researchers have found. (Carole Fritz/Université de Toulouse/Science Advances)

Researchers in France have recreated the sound of a musical instrument that’s more than 18,000 years old. The tones are close to the musical notes C, D and C sharp.

They’ve found that the Late Stone Age occupants of a cave in what is now France modified a sea-snail’s shell into a musical instrument. Until now, they’d believed that the shell, found in Marsoulas Cave in the French Pyrenees in 1931, was a drinking cup.

It’s not the oldest musical instrument—archaeologists have found bone and ivory flutes from 40,000 years ago, as well as older decorated caves with musical properties. The cave in which this seashell horn was found was the first decorated cave to be discovered in this region in 1897. It was home to Magdalenian hunter-gatherers who lived in the region about 17,000 to 12,000 years ago.

The seashell, with decorative ochre markings similar to the ones on the cave walls, was forgotten for about 80 years, and sat in the collection of the Natural History Museum of Toulouse till archaeologist Carole Fritz decided to examine it.

The shell has traces of important modifications by humans to turn it into a wind instrument, from the of cutting a portion of the shell (A & B) to creating an opening for a mouthpiece and resin deposits (C & D).
The shell has traces of important modifications by humans to turn it into a wind instrument, from the of cutting a portion of the shell (A & B) to creating an opening for a mouthpiece and resin deposits (C & D). (C. Fritz/Université de Toulouse/Science Advances)

She and her team ran CT scans on the seashell and ran it through imaging software to realise that a portion of the shell had been carefully modified, cut to create a second opening, and a mouthpiece inserted, probably a hollow bird bone. They also found traces of resin, which may have been used as a sort of glue to hold the mouthpiece. “It is one of the very rare examples, if not the only one for the Paleolithic period, of a musical instrument fashioned from a large shell, and the first conch shell of this use thus far discovered,” the team led by Fritz of the University of Toulouse wrote in a paper in Scientific Advances.

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They then brought in a musicologist who reproduced the sounds—and they’re close to the musical notes C, C sharp and D. It’s a rather mournful yet calming sound, like a muted foghorn. Listen to it here.

The shell itself is from a predatory sea snail, Charonia lampas, which was found in the North-East Atlantic and the North Sea, and this adds to archaeologists’ theories about contact between the different regions back in the Upper Palaeolithic era. “This extraordinary archaeological artifact is multifaceted: It is a musical instrument, a decorated prestige object, and a symbol of the ocean and long-distance contacts on the Atlantic coast and Cantabria (Spain),” the team writes.

They’ve now made a 3D model of the shell so that they can continue to make music and study it without damaging the original.

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