An 18,000-year-old conch was recently reexamined by researchers at the Natural History Museum of Toulouse in France and found to have a completely different purpose than originally thought.
First discovered in 1931 in the Marsoulas cave in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains, the oceanic fossil was considered to be a "loving cup" used to share drinks during ceremonies. But after archaeologists took another look, they found the ancient conch had been carved into a wind instrument, possibly used for ceremonial purposes.
The Marsoulas cave is a well-known archaeological site, and is one of the many excavations in the southwestern Europe that ancient societies called their home. A group known as the Pyrenean Magdalenians inhabited the cave about 18,000 years ago, leaving behind wall art and various objects, including the conch. Early humans were known for making simple musical instruments even before that time—such as flutes carved from bird bones, but the "conch instrument" would be the oldest of its kind known today, explains Carole Fritz, the study's coauthor, who leads prehistoric art research at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).
Curious how the conch would sound today, the team consulted a professional horn player. "It was a very big emotional moment for me" says Fitz. She was worried that the ancient conch may incur some damage, "because it was an original shell and we didn't know how the shell would react." But the wind instrument performed well, releasing three sounds close to the notes C, C-sharp and D. "And the sound was truly amazing," Fritz says. Walter adds that that the three notes isn't the limit of the shell's abilities, but rather just a quick sound experiment. "There are many other possibilities," he says.
Listen to what it sounds like today:
Read more: "Hear the Musical Sounds of an 18,000-Year-Old Giant Conch" (Smithsonian)