Almost 80 years after its discovery, a large shell from the ornate Marsoulas Cave in the Pyrenees has been studied by a multidisciplinary team from the CNRS, the Muséum de Toulouse, the Université Toulouse — Jean Jaurès and the Musée du quai Branly — Jacques-Chirac (1): it is believed to be the oldest wind instrument of its type. Scientists reveal how it sounds in a study published in the journal Science Advances on 10th February 2021.
The first carbon-14 dating of the cave, carried out on a piece of charcoal and a fragment of bear bone from the same archaeological level as the shell, provided a date of around 18,000 years. This makes the Marsoulas conch the oldest wind instrument of its type: to date, only flutes have been discovered in earlier European Upper Palaeolithic contexts; the conches found outside Europe are much more recent.
In addition to immersing us in the sounds produced by our Magdalenian ancestors, this shell reinforces the idea of exchanges between the Pyrenees and the Atlantic coast, more than 200 kilometres away.
(1) The laboratories involved are the Travaux et recherches archéologiques sur les cultures, les espaces et les sociétés (CNRS/Université Toulouse — Jean Jaurès/Ministère de la Culture), the Maison des sciences de l’homme et de la société de Toulouse (CNRS/Université Fédérale de Toulouse) and the Laboratoire d’archéologie moléculaire et structurale (CNRS/Sorbonne Université).
(2) Covering a period between around 21,000 and 14,000 years BP, it is characterised by worked animal bones and antlers and extensive exchange networks. The Altamira and Lascaux caves are the most famous examples.
(3) As the quantity is limited, analyses have not been able to identify its nature.