Oldest Conch Wind Instrument Discovered

Conch shell in French museum found to be 17,000-year-old wind instrument.

During a recent inventory of items at the Muséum de Toulouse in southern France, researchers re-examined a conch shell and realized it had been modified by its prehistoric owners to be played like a horn. It had been hiding in plain sight all this time and has now been identified as the oldest known wind instrument of its type.


The shell, which was first discovered in a richly decorated cave in the Pyrenees in 1931, was first assumed to be a communal “loving cup” used by the Palaeolithic people whose wall art adorns the space, but a new examination unveiled that it had actually been carefully drilled and shaped to hold what experts now believe was a mouthpiece. Researchers also noted that the shell had also been decorated in its inner whorls with a red pigment that's remarkably similar to the fingerprint artworks that adorn the cave walls.


In order to confirm whether or not this shell is actually a pre-historic instrument, the researchers enlisted a skilled horn player who was able to produce three clear notes of C, D, and C sharp from the artifact, reports The Guardian.


“We are supposing that the shell was decorated with the same pattern as was used in the cave art of Marsoulas, which establishes a strong link between the music played [by] the conch and the images on the walls,” said Gilles Tosello, an archaeologist and cave art specialist. “That, to our knowledge, is the first time that we can see [evidence of] such a relationship between music and cave art in European prehistory.”


Societies from Oceania to Europe, India to Japan have been known to use conch shells as musical instruments. While bone flutes were used as early as 35,000 years ago, Tosello said, no known example of a conch instrument dates to such an early period.


There are now plans afoot to play the instrument in the actual cave where it may first have been heard, something that Tosello expects to be “a moment of great emotion.”

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