Hear the sound of this 18,000-year-old instrument

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French researchers have succeeded in sounding an 18,000-year-old conch shell found in 1931 in the decorated cave of Marsoulas, in the Pyrenees. They publish their work in the journal Scientific advances.

Almost 90 years ago, in 1931, while exploring the decorated cave of Marsoulas, on the edge of Haute-Garonne and Ariège, researchers came across a large shell. Since exhibited at the Toulouse Museum, it housed there about 18,000 years old a large sea snail of the species Charonia lampas.

Although this was an unexpected find as this animal was believed to have come from further south, possibly Africa, it had not been thoroughly studied. Moreover, the few searches carried out had not identified any evidence of human modification. In reality, this shell of a thirty centimeters in diameter was much more interesting than expected.

An ancient instrument

As part of a new examination, Carole Fritz and her team, from the French National Center for Scientific Research, have indeed determined that the shell had indeed been modified… and not only a little.

The team isolated four major changes. Already the end of the hull was broken, forming an opening of 3.5 cm. Since this is the hardest part of the shell, this opening appears to have been done on purpose. The researchers also recorded traces of an organic coating. Also, the team believe he once had a mouthpiece. Newer conch instruments also feature mouthpieces. This is therefore a plausible assumption.

The other two changes are on the opposite end of the hull. These ancient people carved the outermost edges of the labrum, the flared ridge located around the shell, widening the opening, presumably to give different notes. The exterior of the hull was also adorned with red ocher pigment. Finally, a scan of the object revealed that there were two carefully designed holes in the spiral.

Three notes, powerful, long and deep

Enlisted by the scientists, a musicologist (Pascal Gaillard, CNRS) then analyzed these holes, assuming they could play notes. He then invited Jean-Michel Court, one of his horn player friends (horn player) to blow into the conch, reviving this 18,000-year-old instrument. The shell actually allows you to play three notes, the lowest of which would be close to C and the other two respectively, a C sharp and a D. You can listen to them below:

Conch shells as wind instruments date back thousands of years. However, this one is a bit special. “All over the world, conchs have served as musical instruments, calls or signals, and sacred or magical objects according to cultures“, Write the authors in the study. “To our knowledge, the Marsoulas shell is unique in the prehistoric context, not only in France, but on the scale of Paleolithic Europe and perhaps of the world.“.

At the time, this instrument was probably used by Magdalenian hunters. This exceptional discovery sheds light on certain practices in Upper Paleolithic societies from an unknown musical dimension.

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