Researchers analyzing an 18,000-year-old conch shell found in 1931 say that it was indeed used as a musical instrument millennia ago. The conch shell, unearthed in the Marsoulas Cave in Southwestern France, is potentially the only instrument made from a large shell available from the Paleolithic era. And listening to somebody play it is both enlightening and, oddly enough, hilarious.
Hyperallergic reported on this conch revelation, which the team of researchers described in a paper in the journal Science Advances. The team, from the Natural History Museum of Toulouse in France, say in their paper that “The production of sounds in social contexts is very ancient,” and that it’s common knowledge prehistoric people transformed shells into ornaments; two signs that help point toward this particular shell’s likely function as an instrument.
In the SoundCloud clip immediately below, the researchers offer a brief auditory taste of different notes from the shell. And, again, we’re going with the descriptions: enlightening and hilarious. Because, frankly, this conch sounds a lot more like something out of a Monty Python sketch than an ancient, cave-dwelling society.
Setting the third-grader-learning-how-to-play-the-saxophone sound aside, there are concrete reasons to believe this particular shell is an ancient instrument. As Hyperallergic notes, the research team took several approaches toward verifying the purpose of the shell; including a complete digital modeling of its structure, both inside and out.
Perhaps the most convincing piece of evidence the Paleolithic Marsoulas Cave dwellers used the shell as an instrument, however, comes from the way it’s been shaped. Note in the image immediately below that someone has cut off the top of the shell, and then rounded it off. This, of course, would’ve made a more comfortable holding position for the mouth.
On top of that, the researchers also found traces of markings made with red pigment inside the shell; ones stylistically similar to a series of red dots adorning cave wall paintings. More specifically, the dots (in image at bottom) are similar to those in paintings of bison. Consequently, the researchers speculate the ancient cave dwellers used the shell to call for a bison hunt. Or, just as likely, a bison celebration. Or perhaps a bison worship session.
“Anthropologists and ethnomusicologists assert that there is no society without song, and more specifically, there is no ritual or celebration without accompanying sound,” the researchers wrote in their paper. And while that may be the case, apparently tuning those sounds is a more recent development.