Ancient conch horn blown for the first time in 18,000 years
At the entrance to the Marsoulas cave in the Pyrenean foothills of France, Henri Begouën and James Townsend Russell stumbled upon an exceptional find in 1931. A conch – the hardened exoskeleton of a predatory sea snail – was empty to the ‘mouth of a cave the men knew it was once used by human ancestors at the end of the Stone Age. But, as exceptional as the find was, the researchers deposited the conch shell, believing that it showed no signs of human modification.
But the forgotten shell, which was on display at the Toulouse Museum in France, has been reexamined by researchers some 80 years after its discovery, and they believe it is the oldest shell-shaped wind instrument ever discovered. The team claims that the Marsoulas conch was blown by members of the Magdalenian cultures, who lived in Western Europe around 21,000 to 14,000 years ago.
And they employed a musician to play the shell for the first time in millennia.
Their research, published Wednesday in the journal Science Advances, used high-fidelity x-ray scanning and fluorescence spectrometry to see how human hands had transformed the shell into a musical instrument. You can see an exceptional 3D rendering here.
Using the scans, the team was able to determine the “impact points” where it appeared that the shell had been modified. The biggest change was made to the top of the shell, the hard, pointy end, which the team said was deliberately opened up to create a hole the conch player would blow into. This, they reason, cannot be an accidental breakage as it is usually the hardest part of a conch shell. The apex also appeared to show signs of resin or wax, which may have been used to attach a mouthpiece to it, but there is not enough of it to determine its origin.
Red pigments found inside and outside the shell were also present in the Marsoulas cave. It appears humans in the late Stone Age painted their fingers, using their fingerprints to form elaborate art on the cave walls. However, the team could not determine if the faded ocher marks on the conch shell and the paintings on the cave walls were made of the same chemicals, due to how they faded over time. .
Conch shells have been used as sacred objects or musical instruments throughout history, with authors suggesting that the oldest known shells previously were discovered in the Mediterranean, starting in ancient Greece.
With the case of the Marsoulas conch as a strong musical instrument, the team turned to a musicologist for confirmation. A very lucky horn player was able to reproduce the sounds of human prehistory by playing three notes: a C, a C sharp and a D.
In January last year, scientists were able to 3D print the vocal tract of a 3,000-year-old mummy named Nesyamun and. But the recreation was only able to sound specific vowels and ended up sounding like an apathetic moan. Nesyamun’s voice was back, but all he could do was “ehhhh”.
The tones of the conch, however, are deep and pleasant – even euphonic! You can listen to the three notes here.
Now if we can just get Nesyamun’s 3D printed vocal tract to blow air through the horn, who knows what eldritch horrors we might be able to unleash in 2021?