17,000 year-old sea shell instrument played

cave painting
Source: MarieBrizard (via Flickr)
The shell was previously thought to be a drinking cup, but new analysis shows it was modified to be played like a trumpet.

By Holly Giles | Deputy Editor 

Lockdown was a time for many to take up new hobbies and musical instruments were no exception: it is estimated that 69% of children play a musical instrument regularly, alongside 34% of adults. Playing a musical instrument has been linked to a number of beneficial health changes including boosting the immune system, increasing memory, increasing emotional perception and even increasing the processing power of the brain through more grey matter. 

A common misconception is that music is a modern acquisition but research shows it dates back thousands of years. This was supported by the discovery on the conchae shell in France that has been played  this month. 

The shell was first found by excavators in a cave in Marsoulas where it was assumed to be a ceremonial drinking cup. However, recent analysis from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) showed its true purpose was a musical instrument.

This change came from the observation of deliberate modifications that had been made to the shell in order to enhance its ability to make sound. These alterations included the hole at one end which had been manipulated to allow the addition of a mouth piece and cuts at the other end which allowed the player to modulate the sound with their hand. This is most similar to the mouthpiece of a trumpet and the use of a mute to alter the sound coming out. 

The team then asked a musician to try out the instrument and it was reported they were able to achieve notes close to C, C-sharp and D.

Reflecting on this, Philippe Walter from Sorbonne University, said:

“The intensity produced is amazing, approximately 100 decibels at one metre. And the sound is very directed in the axis of the aperture of the shell,”

There were also patterns on the inner surface of the shell’s opening made with iron oxide pigment fingerprints. These are the same style to the Marsoulas cave paintings where there is a bison created by 300 finger dots. Explaining the significance of these findings, Gilles Torsello from the University of Toulouse, told:

“This establishes a strong link between the music played with the conch and the images, the representations, on the walls. To our knowledge this is the first time we can put in evidence a relationship between music and cave art in European pre-history.”

This unity of music and art increases our knowledge of the Upper Palaeolithic people, who are already well-known for their use of bone, antler and ivory to make tools. This findings sheds a more creative light on the era and highlights our links with the time. 

The shell is the oldest known wind instrument of its type but this research shows it is possible that other artefacts have been collected and miscategorised, so it is hoped through new technology this can be corrected and more instruments may be identified. 


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