Hear a Prehistoric Conch Shell Musical Instrument Played for the First Time in 18,000 Years

Pho­to by C. Fritz, Muséum d’His­toire naturelle de Toulouse

Bri­an Eno once defined art as “every­thing you don’t have to do.” But just because humans can live with­out art doesn’t mean we should—or that we ever have—unless forced by exi­gent cir­cum­stance. Even when we spent most of our time in the busi­ness of sur­vival, we still found time for art and music. Mar­soulas Cave, for exam­ple, “in the foothills of the French Pyre­nees, has long fas­ci­nat­ed researchers with its col­or­ful paint­ings depict­ing bison, hors­es and humans,”  Kather­ine Kornei writes at The New York Times. This is also where an “enor­mous tan-col­ored conch shell was first dis­cov­ered, an incon­gru­ous object that must have been trans­port­ed from the Atlantic Ocean, over 150 miles away.”

The 18,000-year-old shell’s 1931 dis­cov­er­ers assumed it must have been a large cer­e­mo­ni­al cup, and it “sat for over 80 years in the Nat­ur­al His­to­ry Muse­um of Toulouse.” Only recent­ly, in 2016, did researchers sus­pect it could be a musi­cal instru­ment. Philippe Wal­ter, direc­tor of the Lab­o­ra­to­ry of Mol­e­c­u­lar and Struc­tur­al Arche­ol­o­gy at the Sor­bonne, and Car­ole Fritz, who leads pre­his­toric art research at the French Nation­al Cen­ter for Sci­en­tif­ic Research, redis­cov­ered the shell, as it were, when they revised old assump­tions using mod­ern imag­ing tech­nol­o­gy.

Fritz and her col­leagues had stud­ied the cave’s art for 20 years, but only under­stood the shell’s pecu­liar­i­ties after they made a 3D dig­i­tal mod­el. “When Wal­ter placed the conch into a CT scan,” writes Lina Zel­dovich at Smith­son­ian, “he indeed found many curi­ous human touch­es. Not only did the ancient artists delib­er­ate­ly cut off the tip, but they also punc­tured or drilled round holes through the shell’s coils, through which they like­ly insert­ed a small tube-like mouth­piece.” The team also used a med­ical cam­era to look close­ly at the shell’s inte­ri­or and exam­ine unusu­al for­ma­tions. Kornei describes the shell fur­ther:

This shell might have been played dur­ing cer­e­monies or used to sum­mon gath­er­ings, said Julien Tardieu, anoth­er Toulouse researcher who stud­ies sound per­cep­tion. Cave set­tings tend to ampli­fy sound, said Dr. Tardieu. “Play­ing this conch in a cave could be very loud and impres­sive.”

It would also have been a beau­ti­ful sight, the researchers sug­gest, because the conch is dec­o­rat­ed with red dots — now fad­ed — that match the mark­ings found on the cave’s walls.

The dec­o­ra­tion on the shell looks sim­i­lar to an image of a bison on the cave wall, sug­gest­ing it may have been played near that paint­ing for some rea­son. The conch resem­bles sim­i­lar “seashell horns” found in New Zealand and Peru, but it is much, much old­er. It may have orig­i­nat­ed in Spain, along with oth­er objects found in the cave, and may have trav­eled with its own­ers or been exchanged in trade, explains arche­ol­o­gist Mar­garet W. Con­key at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, who adds, writes Zel­dovich, that “the Mag­dalen­ian peo­ple also val­ued sen­so­ry expe­ri­ences, includ­ing those pro­duced by wind instru­ments.

Many thou­sands of years lat­er, we too can hear what those ear­ly humans heard in their cave: musi­col­o­gist Jean-Michel Court gave a demon­stra­tion, pro­duc­ing the three notes above, which are close to C, C‑sharp and D. The shell may have had more range, and been more com­fort­able to play, with its mouth­piece, like­ly made of a hol­low bird bone. The shell is hard­ly the old­est instru­ment in the world. Some are tens of thou­sands of years old­er. But it is the old­est of its kind. What­ev­er its pre­his­toric own­ers used it for—a call in a hunt, stage reli­gious cer­e­monies, or a cel­e­bra­tion in the cave—it is, like every ancient instru­ment and art­work, only fur­ther evi­dence of the innate human desire to cre­ate.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Hear the World’s Old­est Instru­ment, the “Nean­derthal Flute,” Dat­ing Back Over 43,000 Years

Watch an Archae­ol­o­gist Play the “Litho­phone,” a Pre­his­toric Instru­ment That Let Ancient Musi­cians Play Real Clas­sic Rock

A Mod­ern Drum­mer Plays a Rock Gong, a Per­cus­sion Instru­ment from Pre­his­toric Times

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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