The Sounds of the Past

An ancient sea shell is providing evidence of how our ancestors developed musical instruments.

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

Re-examining artefacts from digs, sometimes from the last century or more, is keeping many researchers busy and revealing evidence missed when the finds were first unearthed.

The Marsoulas Cave, between Haute-Garonne and Ariège, was the first decorated cave 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 archaeological excavations, most of which is kept in the Muséum de Toulouse, scientists examined a large Charonia lampas (sea snail) shell, which had been largely overlooked when discovered in 1931.

The multidisciplinary team from the CNRS, the Muséum de Toulouse, the Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès and the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques-Chirac believe the shell to be the oldest wind instrument of its type.

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.

This is it being played

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

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. 3D impressions of the conch will enable this lead to be explored and verify whether it can be used to produce other notes.

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.

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.

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

The study is published in the journal Science Advances on 10th February 2021.

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