The ancient Conch Shell Horn played its music for the first time in 18,000 years – hear it here

At 31 cm high, 18 cm in diameter (at the widest point) and up to 0.8 cm thick, this shell, which testifies to a colder sea, is larger and thicker than the newer ones. Credit: © Carole Fritz et al. 2021.

Nearly 80 years after its discovery, a large shell from the ornate Marsoulas Cave in the Pyrenees was explored by a multidisciplinary group of CNRS, the Toulouse Museum, the Universite Toulouse – Jean Jaurès, and the Branly Musée – Jacques-Chirac.[1]: is believed to be the oldest breathing instrument of its kind. Scientists explain how this sounds in a study published in the journal Scientific developments February 10, 2021.

The Marsoulas Cave between Haute-Garonne and Ariège was the first decorated cave found in the Pyrenees. The cave, discovered in 1897, testifies to the beginning of Magdalene[2] Culture in this region at the end of the last Glacier Maximum. During an inventory of archeological excavations, most of which are housed in the Toulouse Muséum, scientists examined the shell of a large Charonia lampas (sea snail) that was generally overlooked when it was discovered in 1931.

Play Marsoulas Conch Shell

Reconstruction of the playing instrument. A red-spotted buffalo in the background adorns the walls of the Marsoulas Cave; similar motifs adorn the instrument. Credit: © Carole Fritz et al. 2021 / painting: Gilles Tosello

The tip of the shell is broken, forming an opening with a diameter of 3.5 cm. Since this is the hardest part of the shell, the breakage is clearly not accidental. On the opposite side, retouching (cutting) marks are shown at the opening of the shell, and the tomography machine found that one of the first rolls was punctured. Finally, the shell is decorated with a red pigment (hematite) typical of the Marsoulas Cave, which indicates its status as a symbolic object.

To confirm the hypothesis that this shell was used to make sounds, scientists enlisted the help of a horn performer who was able to make three sounds close to the notes C, C-sharp and D. cover[3], researchers believe that the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac has joined a conspiracy, as in recent meetings in the collection. 3D impressions of the shell will allow you to explore this device and see if it can be used to make other notes.

Listen to the sound of the Marsoulas shell, as it may have been played 18,000 years ago. Credit: © Carole Fritz et al. 2021 / play: Jean-Michel Court / recording: Julien Tardieu

The first carbon-14 date, carried out on a piece of coal and a piece of bear bone from the same archaeological level as the cave’s shell, provided a history of about 18,000 years. This makes the Marsoulas shell the oldest wind instrument of its kind: only flutes have been discovered so far in the Upper European Paleolithic; Concrete found outside Europe is newer.

This shell not only immerses us in the sounds created by our Magdalene ancestors, but also strengthens the exchange of ideas between the Pyrenees and the Atlantic coast, more than 200 kilometers away.


  1. Here are the archeological works and researches related to laboratories, cultures, places and societies (CNRS / Université Toulouse – Jean Jaurès / Ministry of Culture). ) and the Laboratory of Molecular and Structural Archeology (CNRS / Sorbonne University).
  2. BP is characterized by processed animal bones and horns and extensive exchange networks, covering a period of about 21,000 to 14,000 years. Altamira and Lascaux caves are the most famous examples.
  3. Because of the limited quantity, the analyzes could not determine its nature.

Reference: February 10, 2021, Scientific developments.
DOI: 10.1126 / sciadv.abe9510

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