Archaeologists say the specimen, which was first discovered in 1931, is the oldest known man-made conch shell horn. It stands out as a unique find among European Upper Palaeolithic (around 46,000 to 12,000 years ago) artefacts and may be the only example of a musical instrument fashioned from a large shell during this period.
The people who discovered the shell initially thought it served as a ceremonial drinking cup, noting no discernible modifications by human hands.
However, advanced imaging techniques and a fresh look at the artefact left Carole Fritz and her colleagues at the French National Centre for Scientific Research to determine that the occupants of the cave had carefully modified the shell to install a mouthpiece.
The ancient craftspeople also removed the outermost edges of the shell’s labrum – a flared ridge that extends outward from the shell’s main opening – and covered the shell’s exterior with designs in an ochre-red pigment that matched the style of wall art found inside the Marsoulas cave.
The tip of the shell features a break that forms a 3.5cm diameter opening, which researchers say is clearly not accidental because this is the hardest part of the shell. Internal perforations were also found, likely made to maintain the mouthpiece, as well as signs of retouching around the shell opening.
Researchers believe an external mouthpiece was used with the shell that could be fixed in place with an organic material such as resin or wax, and such a mouthpiece for this conch could have been an empty bird bone tube.
A horn player was enlisted by scientists to confirm their hypothesis that the conch was used as a musical instrument. The player was able to produce three “high quality” sounds close to the notes C, C sharp and D.
The researchers who carried out the study, published in the Science Advances journal, wrote: “Around the world, conch shells have served as a musical instrument, calling or signalling devices, and sacred or magic objects depending on the cultures.
“To our knowledge, the Marsoulas shell is unique in the prehistoric context, however, not only in France but at the scale of Palaeolithic Europe and perhaps the world.”
Carbon dating of the cave, which was carried out on a piece of charcoal and a fragment of bear bone from the same archaeological level as the shell, suggested the conch is around 18,000 years old.
To date, only flutes have been discovered in earlier European Upper Palaeolithic contexts, while conches found outside Europe are much more recent. The oldest known conch shells in the Mediterranean are from Ancient Greece, says the study.