A large seashell was unearthed at the entrance of France’s Marsoulas Cave back in 1931. Measuring approximately a foot in length, the tan-colored conch shell came from a sea snail called Charonia lampas and must have made its way from the Atlantic Ocean that is situated more than 150 miles away.
Since it was believed have been just a drinking vessel, the shell sat in the Natural History Museum of Toulouse for around 80 years until a team of experts performed more modern studies on it and what they found was pretty incredible.
The team analyzed the conch shell with imaging technology and by creating a 3D digital model they found that there were deliberate punctures and pieces chipped away on it as well as brown residue (perhaps beeswax or clay) in order for it to be used as a musical instrument about 18,000 years ago. It even had faded red dots colored on it that matched drawings on the walls of the cave.
It is exceptionally rare to find a “seashell horn” that dates all the way back to the Paleolithic Period. In fact, other “seashell horns” have been previously discovered at other locations like Peru and New Zealand, but none were as old as the one found at Marsoulas Cave.
As for what the sound-producing musical instrument was used for, Julien Tardieu, who is a Toulouse researcher and who studies sound perception, suggested that it may have been played to summon gatherings or during ceremonies. “Playing this conch in a cave could be very loud and impressive,” he said.
What’s even more exciting was that a musician was recently able to play three separate notes from it. Jean-Michel Court, who is a musicologist at the University of Toulouse and the one who played the notes on the shell, said, “I needed a lot of air to maintain the sound.”
Carole Fritz, who is an archaeologist at the University of Toulouse and has been studying the cave and its paintings for over 20 years, noted how exciting it was to hear Mr. Court play the shell for the first time in approximately 18,000 years. “It was a fantastic moment,” she said. You can hear the musical sounds from the shell here and here.
The study was published in the journal Science Advances where pictures of the shell can be seen.