Earliest known conch shell horn plays a tune for the first time in 18,000 years

A shell discovered in a French cave almost 80 years ago has been revealed to be the earliest known conch shell horn. The shell, found in the Marsoulas Cave in the foothills of the French Pyrenees in 1931, has been played for the first time in 18,000 years after new analysis identified it as a wind instrument.

Originally belonging to a large sea snail of the species Charonia lampas, the shell was at first thought to have been used as a ceremonial drinking cup. Now known as the Marsoulas conch shell, the priceless object is 12.2 inches (31 cm) in height, up to 7 inches (18 cm) in diameter and up to 0.3 inches (0.8 cm) thick. It's housed at the the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris, but it's only been reanalysed by French researchers due to a recent inventory.

To confirm 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. The new updated analysis of the shell and its history has been led by experts from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, as well as the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris.

The authors said, around the world, conch shells have served as musical instruments, calling or signalling devices and sacred or magic objects depending on the cultures,' say the study authors. To our knowledge, the Marsoulas shell is unique in the prehistoric context, however, not only in France but at the scale of Palaeolithic Europe and perhaps the world. To date, only flutes have been discovered in earlier European Upper Palaeolithic contexts, while the conches found outside Europe are much more recent.

The research has led to 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, which has provided the date of around 18,000 years. This new dating makes the Marsoulas conch the oldest wind instrument of its type.

A CNRS spokesperson said, in addition to the abundant and complex art on its walls, it contains archaeological levels attributed to the early Pyrenean Magdalenian, recently dated to 18,261 – 18,011 years BP (before presen).

The shell had also been decorated with a red pigment (from hematite, a common mineral) in a style that matches wall art inside the Marsoulas Cave. This indicates the shell's status as a symbolic object, according to the team, and establishes a link between the cave art and the music played on the conch.

The study author Gilles Tosello said, 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 and the images on the walls. That, to our knowledge, is the first time that we can see such a relationship between music and cave art in European prehistory.

Using photogrammetry techniques to highlight exterior modifications not readily seen with the naked eye, researchers painstakingly plotted the traces of human intervention. The outermost edges of the shell’s labrum or lip, the flared ridge that extends outward from the shell’s main opening, had been removed. Researchers noted signs that the shell's apex (its pointed tip) had been carefully and deliberately removed to create a second opening.

The apex is broken, forming a 0.3-inch (3.5 cm) diameter opening, but as this is the hardest part of the shell, the break is 'clearly not accidental.

They also noted traces of a brown organic substance, likely a resin or wax but not conclusively identified, around the apex opening that may have been used as an adhesive to affix a mouthpiece. Other more recent conches at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, which is known for its indigenous collections, were carefully modified for a mouthpiece to be installed. This includes a conch from New Zealand that notably features a mouthpiece made of a decorated and highly ornate bone tube. 3D impressions of the Marsoulas conch will let researchers explore further whether it had a mouthpiece and verify if it can be used to produce other notes.

Researchers also used computerised tomography (CT) scans to look at the Marsoulas conch's interior. They found that two additional holes had been chipped away in the spiral layers directly beneath the shell’s apex, likely to accommodate the mouthpiece’s long tube extension. At the opposite end, the shell opening shows traces of retouching (cutting) and the tomography scan has revealed that one of the first coils is perforated.

The Marsoulas Cave, between Haute-Garonne and Ariège in southwestern France, 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. A 1932 research paper titled Recent Excavation in the Marsoulas Cave reads, the paintings of the Marsoulas Cave are singular in the fact that they are near the entrance instead of in the far recesses of the Cave as is more usual.

Their excellent state of preservation suggests that the entrance of the cave must have been blocked by an obstruction for a very long period after the close of the palæolithic age.

The new analysis of the shell is detailed further in the journal Science Advances.

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