Almost 90 years ago, scientists discovered a large conch shell in one of the most famous prehistoric caves in France. Now thanks to a multi-disciplinary study, researchers think that the conch is the oldest musical instrument of its kind dating to over 17,000 years old. Incredibly, it still plays.
Conch shells as wind instruments go back thousands of years. You essentially blow the shell like a trumpet through a hole cut into the spire, and adjust the sound using your hand into the aperture (opening) of the shell. The further in the hand, the lower the note.
As reported in Science Advances, this ancient conch shell can produce sounds close to three notes: C, D, and C sharp, which is enough to play European Son by the Velvet Underground, were you thinking of entering the annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest taking place in Florida this March.
The shell was discovered in 1931 in the Marsoulas Cave in southwest France, the first decorated (with cave paintings) cave found in the French Pyrenees, and since then has been exhibited in the Muséum de Toulouse. The shell belongs to a large sea snail of the species Charonia lampas and though it was an unexpected find and presumed to have come from further south, likely Africa, it was not considered of particular interest when it was found.
Previous research could not see any indication of human modification, where someone might have fashioned a hole or even a mouthpiece, so it was thought that it was perhaps kept as a drinking cup. In a new examination, lead author Carole Fritz from France’s National Centre for Scientific Research and colleagues determined instead that the shell was actually changed significantly, making this a new and very exciting find for the Marsoulas Cave.
Listen to the sound below:
The team found four important changes. The tip of the shell was broken forming a 3.5 centimeter (1.4 inches) opening. Giving that this was the hardest part of the shell, it doesn’t appear that this was accidental. The opening is irregular and it had some organic coating, so the team thinks it used to have a mouthpiece. More recent conch instruments have been found with mouthpieces so this is a plausible guess.
Conch from New Zealand and its mouthpiece made of a decorated bone tube. Image credit: Musée du Quai Branly, Jacques Chirac
The other two changes are at the opposite end of the shell. These ancient people removed the outermost edges of the labrum, the flared ridge situated around the shell, widening the opening, presumably to give different notes. The exterior of the shell was also adorned in ochre-red pigment.
Human modifications appear to be 1: elimination of the labrum (outer lip) by series of strokes, and 2: widening of the opening by destroying the first six spires. Image credit: C. Fritz, G. Tosello, Muséum d’Histoire naturelle de Toulouse
The cave of Marsoulas was found in 1897, and appears to show the beginning of the Magdalenian culture in the region. It’s most famous for its ochre-red cave paintings so finding the same pigment on the conch shell gives this object certain cultural importance. A CT scan of the object revealed that there were two carefully crafted holes in the spiral. The crucial piece of evidence came from a musicologist who specializes in wind instruments enlisted by the scientists, who was able to play the three notes.
“Around the world, conch shells have served as musical instruments, calling or signaling devices, and sacred or magic objects depending on the cultures,” the authors write in the study. “To our knowledge, the Marsoulas shell is unique in the prehistoric context, however, not only in France but at the scale of Paleolithic Europe and perhaps the world.”