18,000-year-old seashell is the oldest manmade wind instrument of its type

Ancient seashell resonates after 18,000 years
At 31 cm in height, 18 cm in diameter (at the widest point) and up to 0.8 cm thick, this conch, which bears witness to a colder sea, is thus larger and thicker than more recent ones. Credit: © Carole Fritz et al. 2021.

Almost 80 years after its discovery, a large shell from the ornate Marsoulas Cave in the Pyrenees has been studied by a multidisciplinary team from the CNRS, the Muséum de Toulouse, the Université Toulouse—Jean Jaurès and the Musée du quai Branly—Jacques-Chirac. They believe it is the oldest wind instrument of its type. The scientists have revealed how it sounds in a study published in the journal Science Advances on 10 February 2021.

The Marsoulas Cave between Haute-Garonne and Ariège was the first decorated to be found in the Pyrenees. Discovered in 1897, the cave bears witness to the beginning of the Magdalenian culture in this region at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum. During an inventory of the material from the , most of which is kept in the Muséum de Toulouse, the scientists examined a large Charonia lampas () shell, which had been largely overlooked when discovered in 1931.

The tip of the shell is broken, forming a 3.5 cm diameter opening. As this is the hardest part of the shell, the break is clearly not accidental. At the opposite end, the shell opening shows traces of retouching (cutting) and a tomography scan has revealed that one of the first coils is perforated. Finally, the shell has been decorated with a red pigment, hematite, characteristic of the Marsoulas Cave, which indicates its status as a symbolic object.

To confirm the hypothesis that this conch was used to produce sounds, scientists enlisted the help of a horn player, who managed to produce three sounds close to the notes C, C-sharp and D. As the opening was irregular and covered with an organic coating, the researchers assume that a mouthpiece was also attached, as is the case for more recent conches in collection of the Musée du quai Branly—Jacques Chirac. 3-D impressions of the conch will enable this lead to be explored and verify whether it can be used to produce other notes.

Listen to the sound of the Marsoulas conch, as it may have been played 18,000 years ago. Credit: © Carole Fritz et al. 2021 / playing: Jean-Michel Court / recording: Julien Tardieu

The first carbon-14 dating of the cave, carried out on a piece of charcoal and a fragment of bear bone from the same archaeological level as the shell, provided a date of around 18,000 years. This makes the Marsoulas conch the oldest wind instrument of its type: To date, only flutes have been discovered in earlier European Upper Palaeolithic contexts; the conches found outside Europe are much more recent.

  • Ancient seashell resonates after 18,000 years
    Reconstruction of the instrument being played. In the background, a red dotted buffalo decorates the walls of the Marsoulas Cave; similar motifs decorate the instrument. Credit: © Carole Fritz et al. 2021 / drawing: Gilles Tosello
  • Ancient seashell resonates after 18,000 years
    Work in the cave. Study of palaeolithic drawing. Credit: R. Apajou
  • Ancient seashell resonates after 18,000 years
    Relevé positioned on the 3D model. Credit: G. Tosello, C. Fritz, M. Willis

In addition to immersing us in the sounds produced by our Magdalenian ancestors, this reinforces the idea of exchanges between the Pyrenees and the Atlantic coast, more than 200 kilometers away.


Explore further

Naturally perforated shells one of the earliest adornments in the Middle Paleolithic

More information: Fritz el al., "First record of the sound produced by the oldest Upper Paleolithic seashell horn," Science Advances (2021). advances.sciencemag.org/lookup … .1126/sciadv.abe9510
Journal information: Science Advances

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Citation: 18,000-year-old seashell is the oldest manmade wind instrument of its type (2021, February 10) retrieved 23 April 2021 from https://phys.org/news/2021-02-year-old-seashell-oldest-manmade-instrument.html
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