The shell was largely overlooked when it was found at the Marsoulas Cave in the Pyrenees mountain range in 1931, but researchers from France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS); the Museum of Toulouse; the University of Toulouse – Jean Jaurès; and the Musée du quai Branly – Jacques-Chirac have released an audio recording as part of a new study published Wednesday.
The tip of the sea snail (Charonia lampas) shell is broken, forming an opening 1.4 inches in diameter. The tip is the toughest part of the shell, researchers said in a press release, so the break is not accidental.
There is also evidence of cutting, perforation and decoration using hematite, a red pigment used in the cave paintings that make the Marsoulas Cave famous.
Researchers worked with a horn player to verify their hypothesis that the shell was used to produce sounds, with the musician able to make sounds close to the notes C, C-sharp and D.
The fact that the opening is irregular and covered with an organic coating led researchers to think that a mouthpiece would have originally been attached.
The presence of mouthpieces on other conch shells from around the world adds weight to this interpretation, said Gilles Tosello, co-author of the study and archeologist at the University of Toulouse.
Carbon dating carried out on charcoal and bear bone from the same archeological stratum as the conch shows the objects date from 18,000 years ago, according to researchers. This makes the shell the oldest wind instrument of its type.
However, the people that made it didn’t necessarily use the shell to make what we think of as music, Tosello told CNN.
“It could have been used as a communication tool,” he said, explaining that it may have been used in rituals connected with art inside the cave.
Researchers also found similarities with materials found in caves along the Atlantic coast in northern Spain, lending weight to the idea that these people were nomadic hunter gatherers who moved between the Atlantic coast and the Pyrenees, Tosello said.
They would have had to move around because they would have run out of animals to hunt if they stayed in one place too long, he explained.
Researchers will now work on an accurate 3D replica of the shell in order to find out more about a small perforation, 0.4 inches in diameter, in its body, Tosello told CNN. They will also investigate how far the sound produced by the shell can travel.
The study is published in the journal Science Advances.