Hear the sound of a seashell horn found in an ancient French cave
By Katherine Kornei
In 1931, researchers working in southern France unearthed a large seashell at the entrance to a cave. Unremarkable at first glance, it languished for decades in the collections of a nearby natural history museum.
Now, a team has reanalyzed the roughly foot-long conch shell using modern imaging technology. It’s an extremely rare example of a “seashell horn” from the Paleolithic period, the team concluded. And it still works — a musician recently coaxed three notes from the 17,000-year-old shell.
“I needed a lot of air to maintain the sound,” said Jean-Michel Court, who performed the demonstration and is also a musicologist at the University of Toulouse.
The Marsoulas Cave, in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, has long fascinated researchers with its colorful paintings depicting bison, horses and humans. It’s where the enormous tan-colored conch shell was first discovered, an incongruous object that must have been transported from the Atlantic Ocean, over 150 miles away.
Only in 2016 did researchers begin to analyze the shell anew. Artifacts like this conch help paint a picture of how cave dwellers lived, said Carole Fritz, an archaeologist at the University of Toulouse who has been studying the cave and its paintings for over 20 years.
Fritz and her colleagues started by assembling a three-dimensional digital model of the conch. They immediately noticed that some parts of its shell looked peculiar. For starters, a portion of its outer lip had been chipped away. That left behind a smooth edge, quite unlike Charonia lampas, said Gilles Tosello, a prehistorian and visual artist also at the University of Toulouse.
The apex of the conch was also broken off, the team found. Indeed, further analysis showed that the shell had been struck repeatedly — and precisely — near its apex.
The mystery deepened when the team used CT scans and a tiny medical camera to examine the inside of the conch. They found a hole, roughly half an inch in diameter, that ran inward from the broken apex and pierced the shell’s interior structure.
All of these modifications were intentional, the researchers believe. The smoothed outer lip would have made the conch easier to hold, and the broken apex and adjacent hole would have allowed a mouthpiece to be inserted into the shell. The result was a musical instrument, the team concluded in their study, which was published in Science Advances.