Tunes from the Stone Age: Paleolithic horn comes back for an encore

The 18,000-year-old Charonia lampas with its forcefully truncated apex at the top. Little of the original red decorations remain visible to the naked eye. Image source: Carole Fritz et al. 2021

Following a sojourn to Europe in the 1820s, the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called music the “universal language of mankind.” The recent discovery of an 18,000-year-old seashell horn by a group of French anthropologists may stand as a testament to the time-enduring quality of his statement. Writing in the journal Science Advances, the researchers describe the re-identification of what is thought to be the oldest known human-made seashell horn in the world and an exceptional relic of the musical culture in the Upper Paleolithic period (50,000 to 12,000 years ago).

Originally discovered in 1931 at the entrance of the cave of Marsoulas near the French Pyrenees, the 31-cm-long conch shell was first misidentified as a ceremonial cup and lay forgotten in the collection of the Natural History Museum of Toulouse for nearly 90 years. The new analysis, led by researchers at the University of Toulouse, found previously overlooked signs of human intervention throughout the shell. Its forcefully truncated apex and internally drilled holes suggest the shell may have been modified into a wind instrument not dissimilar to a horn.

The seashell horn may have played an important role in the symbolic life of the Magdalenian people. A red dotted bison adorns the walls of the cave of Marsoulas in the background. Image source: Carole Fritz et al. 2021 / drawing: Gilles Tosello

A detailed photogrammetry study of the surface of the shell revealed a number of red spots matching those found on the walls of the cave, alluding to a symbolic link between music and cave art. Although X-ray fluorescence spectrometry was used to successfully determine the composition of the colours, the remains were too weak to confirm whether the pigments came from the same origin. A further computer tomography (CT) scan uncovered a series of internal perforations issuing from the apex which was found to be covered in a thin layer of organic material. The researchers believe these modifications were used for attaching a mouthpiece, such as an empty bird bone, to the instrument, as has been the case with more recent shells found in Syria and New Zealand.

The conch shell belongs to the species Charonia lampas which is still found today off the Atlantic coast of Spain and in the Mediterranean Sea. Due to its considerable size and robustness, however, the Marsoulas shell is believed by the researchers to have originated in the colder waters of the North Atlantic. This is in line with previous discoveries made at the cave, such as a spear point fragment made of whalebone, which points to a link between the cave’s former inhabitants and the Atlantic coast. Similarities in cave art further testify to a potential connection with Cantabria, a region in Northern Spain famed for its ornate caves.

Similarly fashioned horns have been discovered around the world but none as old as the Marsoulas shell. Radiocarbon dating performed on a piece of wood charcoal and a bear bone fragment found at the cave put the age of the shell at around 18,000 years, falling into the Magdalenian period at the end of the last ice age. This makes the conch shell the oldest known instrument of its kind and a unique discovery even in a global context.

While little remains of the Paleolithic musical culture, the “universal language” is thought to have played a significant role in religious practices and contributed to the formation of larger social networks in pre-historic times. An earlier discovery of a 35,000-year-old wing bone flute in Germany even prompted researchers to suggest the emergence of music among early humans may have been a critical factor in their existential triumph over the Neanderthals.

“While little remains of the Paleolithic musical culture, the “universal language” is thought to have played a significant role in religious practices and contributed to the formation of larger social networks in pre-historic times.”

In a bid to confirm their hypothesis and study the sonorous qualities of the conch shell, the researchers conducted a further experiment at the University of Toulouse’s PETRA research facility. A professional horn player and musicologist were entrusted to try out the ancient instrument, playing the shell much like a trombone or a trumpet. Three high-quality notes were recorded, roughly corresponding to C, C-sharp and D. Though unlikely to become a chart-topper anytime soon, a snippet of the seashell’s long-awaited comeback is available on Soundcloud for us modern humans’ listening pleasure.

Mika Kontiainen is a 2nd year Astrophysics student. Find him on Twitter @MikaKonte and LinkedIn @Mika Kontiainen.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *