It was almost 80 years ago. It was a discovery made in a French cave. It was a splendid ornate shell. Decades later, scientists have revealed what it sounds like. That’s right: you showed what the oldest wind instrument sounds like.
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It was the Marsoulas cave between Haute-Garonne and Ariège. It was the first decorated cave in the Pyrenees. The cave, discovered in 1897, bears witness to the beginning of the Magdalenian culture in this region. This happened at the end of the last glacier maximum. Most of the inventory of the excavations is in the Museum of Toulouse. An inventory was recently carried out. And the scientists examined a large bowl of ‘Charonia lampas’. It was largely overlooked when it was discovered in 1931.
The top of the bowl is broken and forms an opening with a diameter of 3.5 cm. Since this is the hardest part of the shell, the breakage is clearly not accidental. At the opposite end, the housing opening shows signs of repair through a cutout. A CT scan showed that one of the first coils was pierced. Finally, the bowl was decorated with a red pigment (hematite) characteristic of the Marsoulas cave. This indicates its status as a symbolic object.
It was believed that this clam was used to make sound. The scientists and the Toulouse Museum, the Toulouse-Jean Jaurès University and the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques-Chirac were assisted by a trumpeter. He managed to create three sounds near the C, C sharp and D notes. The sound of the oldest wind instrument can be heard here: https://soundcloud.com/cnrs_officiel/marsoulas-shell-conch-sound/s-234KE5bFZO1
The opening is irregular and has been covered with an organic coating. Investigators assume that he also wore a mouthpiece. Such is the case with the newest seashells in the collection of the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. You can explore this track with 3D printing of the seashell. They check whether other notes can be generated with it. according to a statement by the French CNRS.
The first carbon-14 dating of the cave was on a piece of charcoal and a bear bone fragment. It cast a date of around 18,000 years ago. This makes the Marsoulas shell the oldest wind instrument of its kind. So far, flutes have only been discovered in earlier contexts of the Upper Paleolithic in Europe. The mussels found outside of Europe are much younger.