Listen to the Sounds of an 18,000-year-old Conch

Music elites better table your ukuleles and unplug your theremins; science is bringing the noise with the newest in niche musical instruments. Or, more accurately, one of the oldest. A massive conch shell, unearthed by archaeologists in 1931 amid the remains of the Upper Paleolithic Marsoulas cave society, has been recently determined to be a musical instrument. 

A team of researchers at the Natural History Museum of Toulouse in France, home to the Pyrenees Mountain foothills where the cave was discovered, decided to reexamine the conch fossil — originally believed to be a ritual or loving cup — and found it to be an 18,000-year-old wind instrument. The unique musical artifact is intentionally carved to facilitate specific notes.

“Anthropologists and ethnomusicologists assert that there is no society without song, and more specifically, there is no ritual or celebration without accompanying sound,” wrote the researchers in a collectively authored paper on the finding, released in the February 2021 issue of Science Advances. “The production of sounds in social contexts is very ancient.”

Marine shell of Charonia lampas from Marsoulas cave in France. (A) Side view. (B) Front view and naming of the anatomical areas. (C) Vestiges of red pigment preserved on the columella (image enhanced with Dstretch-rgb0). (D) Tracing of red dots and lines visible on the enhanced photo. Very similar red dots, produced with the fingertips, are present on the walls of the cave. (5) Set of red dots forming a bison silhouette (length, 1.10 m). (6) Geometric sign formed by a double line of dots. [Photos (A to C, E, and F): C. Fritz; drawing (D): G. Tosello.] (image via Science Advances)

Far from a merely speculative exercise, the research team took several approaches to verify the nature and purpose of the shell, including a complete digitization and analysis of the interventions that enabled its range as an instrument. Traces of red pigment were also found, and their stylistic similarity to a series of red dots adorning cave wall paintings of bison suggests to researchers that the function of the horn was ceremonially linked to the bison via worship, call to hunt, celebration, or other unknown purposes.

“These observations suggest that considerable transformations were made to the conch shell to enable it to be blown,” they wrote. The scientists also identified an organic compound that they believe was used to affix a tube in the apex hole of the Charonia shell to make it easier to force air through its interior to produce resonant blasts of sound. These noises were then reproduced and can be heard online, putting modern-day Millenial humans in musical conversation with millennia-old humans.

This is a big win for archivists and researchers, a triumph for our growing understanding of art’s role at the very roots of human civilization, and of course, the new hottest sound craze. Look for conch rock to sweep the nation, touring post-COVID with opener whale song. 

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