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Humans made a horn with a shell about 18,000 years ago

An ancient European made a horn with a large sea shell and threw musical notes at it about 18,000 years ago, a new study suggests. Although it is not known how ancient people used the shell horn, shells in historical and modern cultures served as musical instruments, call or signaling devices, and sacred or magical objects, the researchers say.

People were blowing their horns inside the Marsoulas cave, located in the French Pyrenees, say archaeologist Carole Fritz, of the University of Toulouse in France, and her colleagues. The wall paintings inside that cave depict humans, animals, and geometric shapes. The discoverers of the shell at the entrance to the cave in 1931 thought it had been used as a container for shared drinking.

But microscopic and imaging tests indicate someone cut the narrow end of the shell to create a small opening, scientists report Feb. 10 in Science Advances. They suspect that a cylindrical nozzle was introduced, possibly a hollow bird bone. The brown streaks of a resin or wax around the artificial opening can come from a glue to the nozzle.

Images of the inside of the shell revealed two holes that had been cut into spiral layers just below the opening, likely to hold the nozzle in place. By using a metal mouthpiece and blowing into the artificial opening of the shell, a musicologist and horn player enlisted by the researchers produced sounds close to the C, C sharp and D musical notes.

Red pigment marks in the shape of human fingerprints splash the inside of the shell, near its wide opening where someone cut the edge. If the horn was used as a musical instrument, it is certainly not the oldest. That honor goes to the bone and ivory flutes that Europeans made some 40,000 years ago (SN: 24/06/09).

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