Scientists Coax Tune Out of 18,000-year-old Horn

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Illustration of how the conch horn would have been played, on backdrop of rock-art bison
Illustration of how the conch horn would have been played ~18,000 years ago, on backdrop of rock-art bisonCredit: Carole Fritz et al / Gilles Tosello
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A horn made from a conch shell found in France almost a century ago has been played for the first time in about 18,000 years, scientists announced on Wednesday.

If its characterization as a shell-horn is correct, the conch found in Marsoulas Cave is the earliest known wind instrument made of shell, Carole Fritz of the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and colleagues reported in Science Advances

“Anthropologists and ethnomusicologists assert that there is no society without song, and more specifically, there is no ritual or celebration without accompanying sound,” the authors open their article. That is arguably true; and now the shell, which had been found in 1931 and then completely forgotten for 80 years, shows us what early music made of mollusk may have sounded like.

For the purpose, the team recruited musicologist Jean-Michel Court to do the honors. He produced three deep, sonorous notes: C, C-sharp and D, corresponding to the natural resonances of the conch shell, the researchers explain.

So perhaps to be human really is to be musical – which may apply to Neanderthals too. Flutes made of bone may go back as much as 60,000 years, though the very earliest specimen, made of a cave bear’s thigh bone, is controversial. Some suspect it shows hyena bite marks, not Neanderthal perforations.

Other perforated bones have been found that go back tens of thousands of years, to the depths of the Ice Age, and there is general agreement that whatever scavengers were around, these were indeed wind instruments (in their case, flutes).

An early Seurat

The finds in Marsoulas, which is not far from the border with Spain, are associated with the Magdalenian period, which dates from about 18,000 to 12,000 or 10,000 years ago, depending on who you ask. We won’t quibble about a millennium here or there.

The time was characterized by intense climatic transformations as the last ice age waned, the great ice sheets retreated and sea levels rose.

Generally speaking, it was still cold and arid in southwestern France at the start of the Magdalenian period, though the actual dates of climatic and environmental changes would have varied from region to region.

The entrance to Marsoulas Cave.Credit: Carole Fritz
The Marsoulas conch: 31 centimeters in height, 18 centimers in diameter and up to 0.8 centimeters thick, this conch indicates the sea was colder.Credit: Carole Fritz et al

In fact, the morphology of the conch itself hints that the climate was colder than today, even leaving global warming out of it. The conch snail Charonia didn’t go extinct like the region’s megafauna and can still be found on the seabed of the Bay of Biscay and the Basque and Asturian coasts of Spain, though it’s rare – and it’s smaller.

This shell’s large size and the unusual thickness of its shell, compared with today’s animals, indicate it was existing in cold conditions, the researchers say.

We add that Charonia also exists in the Mediterranean, but is relatively puny.

And Magdalenian southern Europe was thronged with big game: bison, wild horses and reindeer, ample to have fed the burgeoning prehistoric population of hunter-gatherers bountifully – and leaving them time to create art and play music. However, one cannot say whether they were having prehistoric concerts or tootling to summon the group, for instance.

The conch shell had been found, among other Paleolithic and Mesolithic artifacts, in Marsoulas Cave, an inland cavern at the foot of the Pyrenees mountain chain in southwestern France.

The cave itself was first found in 1897. Narrow but deep, around 110 meters (360 feet) in length, Marsoulas Cave is rich in prehistoric art. Among the images, archaeologists have identified bison done in proto-Seurat, pointillist style, one in red dots and one in black; other dot drawings whose subject is hard to identify; wild horses; reindeer; and other animal images as silently evocative as the much older, spectacular murals found in Chauvet and Lascaux.

Art panel at Marsoulas CaveCredit: Gilles Tosello
Closeup of dot art, Marsoulas CaveCredit: HTO

Other finds in the cave include barbed harpoon points, or spears, including one made of whalebone; a couple of shells from the Atlantic coast – and the conch, which, biologically speaking, is just a big snail.

The mouthpiece deduction

The conch came from about 300 kilometers away and didn’t crawl to the cave. It had to have been brought deliberately, for a purpose. And it was modified, though the changes hadn’t been observed at the time of the shell’s discovery in 1931 – its initial finders assumed it was a drinking vessel.

That is unlikely, explains the team now. The Charonia's tip had been broken off, creating a large 3.5-centimeter wide opening, as is necessary for a wind instrument, write the researchers.

Of course, its tip could have broken off, such is life. But the researchers deem its truncation to have been deliberate because the tip is the hardest part of the shell.

Points found in Marsoulas CaveCredit: Didier Descouens / Musum de To
Barbed points found in Marsoulas CaveCredit: Didier Descouens

Moreover, they believe the tip had been cut off to install a mouthpiece – an idea that arose not with the scientists but the musicologist, who observed that if he blew into the thing as was, he would cut his lips on its broken tip.

Bolstering that hypothesis, the researchers identified traces of an organic substance inside and outside the apex. They surmise that it had been resin, or wax, used to glue on the postulated mouthpiece. (It bears adding that use of glue goes back to the Neanderthals, who seem to have carefully manufactured tar to haft their spears.  The inhabitants of Marsoulas didn’t invent the technique of adhesion.)

Also, high-tech scanning revealed that the spiral coil layers had been perforated, the authors explain. That could have been done to accommodate the mouthpiece’s extension.

The Magdalenian artisan also carefully cut off the shell’s labrum – the outer wall with its hard lip – to regularize it, which seems irrelevant to creating sound.

The shell’s modifications were comparable to conches, held at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris, that were modified to bear mouthpieces. In addition, the conch’s exterior was dotted with the same red pigment used on the cave walls.

The researchers believe that the conch’s manipulation and ornamentation demonstrate that it had some sort of symbolic status.

No comparable shell instruments have been found from the Paleolithic – which doesn’t mean they didn’t exist. Conches were used to produce music, or at least sounds, throughout Asia and beyond in the last few thousand years. They were used by the Minoans too, and other Aegean peoples as well. The ancient Greeks even depicted their sea gods blowing conch shells. It might be reasonable to assume that all these peoples learned of the musical qualities of modified conch shells from an even more distant time.

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