A 17,000-year-old conch shell that lay forgotten for more than 80 years in a museum collection has been discovered to be the oldest known wind instrument of its type, after researchers found it had been modified by its prehistoric owners to be played like a horn.
First unearthed in a richly decorated cave in the Pyrenees in 1931, the large shell was initially overlooked by archaeologists, who assumed it was a communal “loving cup” used by the Palaeolithic people whose wall art adorns the space.
But a re-examination of the conch, carried out during a recent inventory of items held at the Muséum de Toulouse in southern France, has revealed that it had in fact been carefully drilled and shaped to hold what experts now believe was a mouthpiece.
Remarkably, a skilled horn player enlisted by the multi-disciplinary team of French scientists was able to produce three clear notes of C, D and C sharp from the artefact, offering a tantalising hint of how it sounded to its original owners.
The conch, the team discovered, had also been decorated in its inner whorls with red pigment marks strikingly similar to fingerprint artworks on the walls of the cave. “We are supposing that the shell was decorated with the same pattern as was used in the cave art of Marsoulas, which establishes a strong link between the music played [by] the conch and the images on the walls,” said Gilles Tosello, an archaeologist and cave art specialist who was part of the investigating team.
“That, to our knowledge, is the first time that we can see [evidence of] such a relationship between music and cave art in European prehistory.”
Societies from Oceania to Europe, India to Japan have been known to use conch shells as musical instruments, calling devices or sacred objects. But while bone flutes were used as early as 35,000 years ago, Tosello said, no known example of a conch instrument dates to such an early period.
Carbon dating of the Marsoulas conch, named after the cave near Toulouse in which it was found, established it was about 17,000 years old, from a time when Magdalenian hunter-gatherers hunted bison and deer at the end of the last ice age.
The apex of the shell has been purposely removed, creating a round aperture through which a narrow stick was inserted to drill a hole, described by the scientists as “a really complex technical operation”. The outermost lip of the shell had also been trimmed, potentially to allow a player to insert his or her hand to modulate the sound.
Traces of a brown organic substance were also detected around the apex hole, which the researchers believe may have been a form of glue used to attach the mouthpiece.
The shell itself, which is 31cm long, belongs to an Atlantic mollusk species called Charonia lampas which, while rare, can still be found in the Bay of Biscay. The Magdalenian people are known to have links with the Atlantic coast and the region of Cantabria in northern Spain, said Carole Fritz, the lead archaeologist based at the University of Toulouse.
The team hope to experiment playing the conch in the cave where it would first have been sounded, which Tosello said he expected would be “a moment of great emotion”.
The research is published in the journal Science Advances.