Listen to Sound of 18,000-Year-Old Seashell Horn

About 18,000 years ago, the Magdalenian occupants of Marsoulas Cave in what is now France transformed a shell of the predatory sea snail Charonia lampas into a wind instrument. A team of researchers in France has now released a recording of what the instrument would have sounded like.

Reconstruction of the seashell horn being played. In the background, a red dotted buffalo decorates the walls of Marsoulas Cave; similar motifs decorate the instrument. Image credit: Gilles Tosello.

The ancient seashell horn was discovered in 1931 at the entrance of the cave of Marsoulas, located in the French Pyrenean foothills.

Marsoulas was the first decorated cave to be discovered in this region in 1897 and has been studied from the end of the 19th century until the present day.

Although qualified as an ‘exceptional discovery,’ the object was described by archaeologists as having no trace of human intervention and was interpreted as a ‘loving cup.’

Marine shell of Charonia lampas from Marsoulas Cave, France: (A) side view; (B) front view and naming of the anatomical areas; (C) vestiges of red pigment preserved on the columella; (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; (E) set of red dots forming a bison silhouette (length – 1.1 m); (F) geometric sign formed by a double line of dots. Image credit: Fritz et al., doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abe9510.

But after looking at the shell with advanced imaging techniques, Dr. Carole Fritz of the Université de Toulouse and colleagues revealed numerous clues of human modifications of it, which make it a possible musical instrument.

They determined that the Magdalenian hunter-gatherers had carefully modified the shell to install a mouthpiece.

The ancient people also removed the outermost edges of the shell’s labrum, the flared ridge that extends outward from the shell’s main opening, and adorned the exterior of the shell with ochre-red pigment designs that match the style of wall art found inside Marsoulas Cave.

“It is one of the very rare examples, if not the only one for the Paleolithic period, of a musical instrument fashioned from a large shell, and the first conch shell of this use thus far discovered,” the scientists said.

The Charonia, wind instrument: (A) sagittal section of the 3D model of the shell that makes it possible to visualize the hole drilled at the level of the sixth spire (after opening the apex), probably to introduce a tube to facilitate the fitting of a mouthpiece; (B) detail of the circular perforation drilled from the apex; the streaks on the edge are due to a skidding tool; (C) top view of the 3D model showing the perforation; (D) 3D cross section at the level of the seventh spire; (E) the conch of Marsoulas in its Magdalenian context (hypothetical restitution); (F) conch from Southeast Asia, the mouth of which is covered with a black coating, intended to protect the lips of the blower; (G and H) conch from Syria and detail of its chipped mouth, close to that of Marsoulas; (I and J) conch from New Zealand and its mouthpiece made of a decorated bone tube. Image credit: Fritz et al., doi: 10.1126/sciadv.abe9510.

Using photogrammetry techniques to highlight exterior modifications not readily seen with the naked eye, they painstakingly characterized the traces of human intervention.

They noted the fingerprint-shaped, faded ochre markings, impact points along the modified labrum, and signs that the shell’s apex had been carefully and deliberately removed to create a second opening.

The authors also noted traces of a brown organic substance, likely a resin or wax, around the apex opening that may have been used as an adhesive to affix a mouthpiece.

They then used CT scans to visualize the shell’s interior, finding 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.

The team then enlisted the help of a musicologist who specializes in wind instruments, who was able to reproduce the sound of the horn in three distinct notes that nearly matched the tones of C, D, and C sharp in modern musical nomenclature.

“We already know that prehistoric people transformed many shells into portable ornaments and that they thus attributed substantial corporal symbolism to them,” the researchers said.

“This seashell horn, with its unique sonority, both deep and strong with an enduring reverberation, sheds light on a musical dimension until now unknown in the context of Upper Paleolithic societies.”

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