Home Science 18,000-Year-Old Seashell Is Earliest Musical Instrument Of Its Kind

18,000-Year-Old Seashell Is Earliest Musical Instrument Of Its Kind

18,000-Year-Old Seashell Is Earliest Musical Instrument Of Its Kind

Almost 80 years after its discovery, a large shell from the Marsoulas Cave in the Pyrenees has been studied by a multidisciplinary team from the French State Research Organization, the Muséum de Toulouse, the Université Toulouse and the Musée du quai Branly in Paris.

The researchers were able to play the 18,000-years-old seashell like a French horn, creating at least three different musical tones. The study, published in the journal Science Advances, argues the shell may be the oldest wind instrument of its type, used for ceremonies inside the cave.

The Marsoulas Cave, between Haute-Garonne and Ariège, was the first cave with rock art decorating its wall to be found in the Pyrenees. Discovered in 1897, the cave bears witness to the beginning of the Magdalenian stone age culture in this region, at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum some 18,000 years ago. During a recent inventory of the material from the archaeological excavations, most of which is kept in the Muséum de Toulouse, scientists examined a large example of Charonia lampas, which had been largely overlooked when discovered in 1931. C. lampas is a species of large sea snail still today found in the nearby Mediterranean Sea.

The tip of the shell is broken, forming a 3.5 centimeter (or 1.3 inches) diameter opening. As this is the hardest part and the rest of the shell shows no damage, the break is likely not accidental but human-made. The researchers assume that a bone tube intended to protect the lips of the blower covered the chipped mouth. At the opposite end, the shell opening shows traces of retouching (cutting) and a tomography scan has revealed that one of the first coils is perforated, probably to introduce a pin to facilitate the fitting of the mouthpiece. Finally, the shell has been decorated with a red pigment (the mineral hematite), characteristic of the Marsoulas Cave, which according to the archaeologists, indicates its status as a symbolic object used likely also during ceremonies inside the cave.

To confirm the hypothesis that the shell was used to produce sounds, scientists enlisted the help of a musicologist who specializes in wind instruments. The sound a wind instrument can generate is controlled through the speed of air through the instrument (controlled by the player’s lungs), the diameter of the mouthpiece, and length of the air column vibrating inside the instrument (controlled by perforations along the instrument’s tubular resonator). As the shell has no perforations on the outside, its sound spectrum is limited; however, the musician was able to reproduce three distinct notes that nearly matched the tones of C, D, and C sharp in modern musical nomenclature.

This makes the Marsoulas shell the oldest wind instrument of its type. The oldest-known musical instruments in the world are flutes, made from bird bone and mammoth ivory between 42,000 and 43,000 years ago. Conches used as musical instruments found outside Europe are much more recent. Some cultures still use them today during ceremonies.

This article is auto-generated by Algorithm Source: www.forbes.com

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