Archaeology

17,000-Year-Old Musical Instrument Is “Discovered” By Archaeologists

During a recent inventory of items held at a museum of natural history in Toulouse, a team of archaeological researchers took the opportunity to re-examine a conch (sea snail) shell retrieved in 1931 from the Marsoulas cave in southern France. Based on its curvature and enclosed shape, it was long believed that the conch shell has been used as a communal or ceremonial cup by the Magdalenian hunter-gatherers who roamed the region surrounding the Pyrenees Mountains near the end of the last Ice Age. After studying the shell more closely, with the assistance of modern, high-tech imaging technology, the researchers realized that what they held in their hands wasn’t a ceremonial cup but a musical instrument. They discovered that the shell had been reshaped and engineered to create a fully functional musical instrument, which they eventually found could produce three distinct musical notes: C, D, and C sharp.

Previous carbon dating analysis had dated the conch shell to approximately 15,000 BC, which meant it had been deposited in the cave during the Upper Paleolithic era. Marsoulas itself is best known for its impressive collection of cave wall paintings, which link it to the European cave painting cultures of that time. 

Making “Spiritual” Music In Ice-Age Europe

The Marsoulas conch shell appears unadulterated to the normal eye. But deeper analysis revealed several signs of alteration.

The prehistoric musical instrument that looks like a normal conch shell but isn’t.

The prehistoric musical instrument that looks like a normal conch shell but isn’t. (© Carole Fritz et al. 2021 /  Science Advances )

It seems that the shell’s apex had been deliberately removed to create room for a mouthpiece, which had been anchored inside the shell in two small holes that had been chipped out in the shell’s interior. The shell had been drilled to create two openings, one for the entrance of air and one for its exit, enabling it to produce musical notes. Its lip had also been modified, presumably to create hand holds for the conch player. Additionally, faded  red ochre pigment fingerprint markings were found on the interior of the shell, meaning the shell had been decorated in the same style as the cave walls.

Conch shells  crafted into wind instruments have been found during excavations at ancient sites in various regions, and other musical instruments traceable to the  Upper Paleolithic period  have been found previously as well. But the latter were  flutes and whistles  made from bone; none were made from conch shells, or from any similar materials. 

“Conch shells have served as musical instruments, calling or signaling devices, and sacred or magic objects depending on the cultures,” the archaeologists wrote in their article introducing their discovery in the journal  Science Advances . “To our knowledge, the Marsoulas shell is unique in the prehistoric context, not only in France but at the scale of Paleolithic Europe and perhaps the world.”

A Magdalenian-period red-ochre painting of a bison from the Marsoulas cave, France, where the musical instrument conch shell was found. (HTO / Public domain)

A Magdalenian-period red-ochre painting of a bison from the Marsoulas cave, France, where the musical instrument conch shell was found. (HTO /  Public domain )

Cave Music, Altered States, And Upper Paleolithic Shamanism

It is notable that the musical conch shell was discovered at an Upper Paleolithic site that hosts an extensive display of  cave paintings . 

The artwork that decorates the walls at Marsoulas is typical of that produced by Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, which can be found in caves throughout southern Europe. The 330-foot (100 meter) long gallery of red-pigment paintings includes numerous images of animals (with the bison hunted by  Magdalenian hunter-gathers featured most prominently), abstract anthropomorphic figures with mask-like faces, and a variety of geometric shapes that don’t represent real-world objects or life forms. 

In recent decades, establishment experts and maverick researchers alike, ranging from Mircea Eliade to Graham Hancock to  David Lewis-Williams , have popularized the theory that such art is modeled after hallucinogenic imagery glimpsed by  shamans or medicine men  experiencing altered states of consciousness.

The South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams descending into a part of Chauvet Cave, France, which is also famous for its cave paintings and where, according to Lewis-Williams, ancient shamans may have held hallucinogenic musical gatherings. (David Lewis-Williams / CC BY-SA 3.0)

The South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams descending into a part of Chauvet Cave, France, which is also famous for its cave paintings and where, according to Lewis-Williams, ancient shamans may have held hallucinogenic musical gatherings. (David Lewis-Williams /  CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Lewis-Williams, a South African archaeologist recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts on ancient rock art has perhaps done the most to promote this intriguing and controversial hypothesis. According to his neuro-psychological model, the shaman would enter a trance state, either by ingesting psychoactive substances or through immersion in a musically stimulating environment, where the shaman and companions would be dancing, drumming, singing, or playing musical instruments over an extended period of time.

Once an altered state of consciousness was achieved, the shaman or medicine man would experience vivid and memorable visual hallucinations, which were considered sacred and were used as inspirations for the drawings on the cave walls. The shaman might create the cave drawings themselves while still in an altered state, or perhaps other artists would make the drawings later on based on the verbal descriptions provided by the shaman. 

These mind-altering ceremonies would be held inside caves in part because of their association with the spiritual realms of the underworld and in part because their acoustics were perfect for inducing expanded consciousness through immersion in a musical wall of sound. 

If shamanistic explorations of altered states of consciousness did inspire Upper Paleolithic cave art, it could explain why the conch shell wind instrument was created and why it was found inside the Marsoulas cave. The shell may have been carefully and painstakingly customized to produce specific musical notes (C, D, and C sharp) that could help provoke a dramatic shift in conscious awareness, if played continuously inside an enclosed space and accompanied by drumming, singing, and the playing of other sound-producing instruments.

Noting the red-ochre imprints found on the inside of the conch shell, one member of the Marsoulas conch shell research team has added legitimacy to this hypothesis.

“We are supposing that the shell was decorated with the same pattern as was used in the cave art of Marsoulas, which establishes a strong link between the music played [by] the conch and the images on the walls,”  stated Gilles Tosello , an archaeologist and cave art specialist from the University of Toulouse. “This, to our knowledge, is the first time that we can see such a relationship between music and cave art in European prehistory.” 

The Marsoulas conch shell research team plans to arrange a visit to Marsoulas, so they can listen and make recordings while the shell is played in the environment where it was originally used. If this plan comes to fruition, it will be interesting to see if they report any mind-altering effects as a consequence of their experiments. 

Top image: Reconstruction of the conch shell musical instrument being played. In the background, a red dotted buffalo decorates the walls of the Marsoulas Cave; similar motifs decorate the instrument.                Source: © Carole Fritz et al. 2021 / drawing: Gilles Tosello /  Science Advances

By Nathan Falde


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