New research document details discovery of ancient seashell horn

Acting as a warning siren, a wind musical instrument, or perhaps even to inform your tribe of dinner on the table, ancient coastal cultures used conch shells as hearing aids for a variety of reasons long before the advent of means of more modern communication. .

A rare thing for researchers, the very first shell used as a Paleolithic musical horn was identified after having been forgotten for nearly 90 years following its discovery at the entrance of a cave in the French Pyrenees in 1931 by H. Bégouën and JT Russell. The object was then described as having no trace of human intervention and was ultimately interpreted as a “cup of love”.

Dating back to around 18,000 years, ancient Europeans made this instrument from a large seashell and produced musical notes from it that we can now hear for the first time in the Soundcloud clip below.

Recordings of this ancient conch-turned-horn provide a time capsule of the sounds it was able to make, tones that turned out to be close to the musical notes C, D, and C sharp. These sound notes were extracted by a musicologist recruited by the researchers, who used a modern metal mouthpiece and blew into the custom opening of the shell.

“I needed a lot of air to keep the sound going,” said Jean-Michel Court, who performed the demonstration.

According to a new open-access study published last week in Science Advances, the remarkable shell is a large specimen of C. lampas, a mollusk harbinger of the Northeast Atlantic and North Sea. It is found today in Ireland and France (Brittany, Pas-de-Calais) at its northern borders. Although rare, it still lives in the Bay of Biscay and on the Basque and Asturian coasts of Spain.

This sea creature has made its home in rocky bottoms, often dotted with stretches of sand up to 200 feet deep. While it is not yet understood exactly how prehistoric Europeans used this shell horn, similar conch shells in historical and modern cultures have often been used as musical instruments, as well as calling devices, and revered as objects. rituals.

“People were playing the sea horn inside the Marsoulas cave, located in the French Pyrenees,” said University of Toulouse archaeologist Carole Fritz and her colleagues. “The murals inside this cave depict humans, animals and geometric shapes. The discoverers of the conch shell at the entrance to the cave in 1931 believed it had been used as a shared drinking vessel.”

As indicated later in their article, this previously unidentified musical instrument had been recovered from the collection of the Museum of Natural History in Toulouse. The shell horn was originally unearthed in the Marsoulas cave (Haute-Garonne, France) in the Pyrenean foothills. Marsoulas was the first decorated cave to be found in this region in 1897 and has been a source of constant scientific interest from the late 19th century until today.

After reexamining the shell using microscopic and imaging techniques, scientists found evidence that someone had cut the narrow end of the shell to create a funnel-shaped opening. A cylindrical mouthpiece, possibly made from a hollow bird bone, was probably placed in the hole.

Brownish streaks of some type of resin or wax applied around the artificial opening could be from the glue used to secure the mouthpiece. Images of the inside of the shell showed a pair of holes that had been carefully cut into spiral layers below the opening.

Although not the oldest musical instruments in the world, these being the 40,000-year-old European bone and ivory flutes, this ultra-rare musical conch represents the oldest shell horn. never found and remains a fascinating relic to better understand Paleolithic cultures.


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