A large conch shell forgotten in a museum for decades has just been identified by scientists as the oldest known seashell musical instrument

A large conch shell forgotten in a museum for decades has just been identified by scientists as the oldest known seashell musical instrument, and it still works, producing a beautiful sound. a deep, murky sound from the distant past.


The painting recreates a scene of prehistoric people playing a shell instrument. Author: Gilles Tosello.

The shell was found during a 1931 excavation from a cave with prehistoric wall paintings in the French Pyrenees and was once thought to have been a ceremonial drinking cup.

Nearly 80 years after its discovery, archaeologists from the University of Toulouse took a fresh look and determined that it was crafted thousands of years ago to serve as a wind instrument. They invited a French stalwart to try it out.


With a height of 31 cm, a diameter of 18 cm at its widest point and a thickness of up to 0.8 cm, this conch shell is from colder waters, and is therefore larger and thicker than recent shells. Photo: Carole Fritz.

“The first time I heard the sound from it, for me it was a big emotional feeling full of tension,” said archaeologist Carole Fritz.

She was afraid that the musician playing the 31 cm long ancient conch shell might damage it. But no, this ancient instrument produced clear vocal notes.

Researchers estimate it to be about 18,000 years old. Their findings were published February 10 in the journal Science Advances.

Conch shells have been widely used in musical and ceremonial traditions, both in ancient Greece, Japan, India and Peru. The shell tool found in Marsoulas Cave is currently the oldest known example.


Two sides of an ancient conch shell discovered in a cave in France with prehistoric wall paintings in 1931. Photo: Carole Fritz.

Previously, a conch shell musical instrument found in Syria was dated to be about 6,000 years old, said another Toulouse archaeologist, Gilles Tosello.

The latest discovery was made after a recent inventory at the Toulouse Natural History Museum. Researchers found the holes punched in the shell to be quite unusual. Notably, the tip of the shell broke off, creating a hole large enough to blow through. According to Mr. Tosello, microscopic examination showed that the gap was the result of intentional ingenuity and not accidental.

By inserting a small medical camera, they discovered another hole had been carefully drilled in the shell’s inner cavity. They also discovered traces of red pigment on the conch’s mouth, matching a decorative pattern found on the wall in Marsoulas cave.

“This is really reliable archaeology,” said archaeologist Margaret Conkey, of the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the study. This discovery reminds us that the lives of ancient people were much richer and more complex than just stone tools and games.”

Ms. Conkey and the researchers said that Marsoulas Cave was not located near the ocean, so prehistoric people had to move around or use trading networks to obtain seashells.


Prehistoric painting depicting a bison in a French cave discovered in 1931 with a snail shell. Photo: Carole Fritz.

“What makes the conch shell interesting is that the spiral cavity is naturally formed,” said Montreal-based composer Rasoul Morteza, who has researched conch shell acoustics and was not involved in the study. naturally in musical resonance”.

Using a 3D replica, archaeologists plan to further expand the scope of research on the shell instrument. Mr Tosello said he hoped to hear the ancient instrument being played inside the cave where it was found.

“It’s amazing how an object is forgotten somewhere, and suddenly it appears brightly,” he said.

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