MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A prehistoric musical instrument has been played for the first time in over 17,000 years. It is a trumpet-like horn made from a conch shell. And as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, it's a unique addition to the history of music.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Archaeologists found this big seashell in 1931. It was in a French cave that has wall paintings. Scientists speculated that the cave's Stone Age occupants had used the shell as a ceremonial cup for shared drinks. They thought that a hole in its tip was just accidental damage. But that's not so, according to a new analysis in the journal Science Advances. High-tech examinations revealed deliberate modifications.
The shell's pointy end was opened up to insert a mouthpiece. Two holes were drilled inside the shell, in spots that would allow a tube to come straight down from that mouthpiece. Plus, traces of red pigment on the shell seemed to match motifs used in the cave's paintings. So scientists invited a musician to blow into it.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHELL NOTES)
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hearing those notes was a profound experience for Carole Fritz. She's an expert in prehistoric art with the French National Center for Scientific Research, who led the research team.
CAROLE FRITZ: For me, it was a big emotion; a big emotion and a big stress.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The stress came from the fact that the musician was forcing air through a priceless, fragile artifact. That's why he only tried a few notes and had to play the horn as it was, with no mouthpiece. Still, it's clear that the sound is very different from that of the oldest known instruments - 40,000-year-old flutes made of bird bones and animal tusks.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTE)
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's an artist playing a reproduction of a flute found in a German cave. Nicholas Conard works at the University of Tubingen. He's convinced the seashell is a musical instrument.
NICHOLAS CONARD: I'm super happy about it because it's kind of lonely having all these flutes that we've got from our sites and there's not too much to compare it to.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Because instruments made of materials like leather or wood don't last for tens of thousands of years. Daniel Adler is an archaeologist at the University of Connecticut. He says hearing music in a dark cave with echoes and dripping water and flickering lamps illuminating the brightly painted walls...
DANIEL ADLER: That's all very, very evocative stuff that I think we can relate to as modern humans.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But what the music meant to people back then is a mystery.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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