A team of scholars has recently reexamined a conch horn discovered around the Marsoulas Cave in southern France, the famous cave art site, and concluded that the conch was more than just an ornamental artifact used for a drinking vessel or any other trivial purpose in Upper Paleolithic Age, aka Old Stone Age, dating from around 17,000 to 12,000 years ago. It was an age when Cro-Magnons, a Homo Sapiens nomadic tribe in western Europe, emerged as formidable hunter-gatherers of reindeers and horses from a new cold and gray prehistoric horizon in the dawn of the ages of man. They were Magdalenian, named after a rock shelter located in the French Pyrenees where the artifacts and human remains were discovered. They left the prehistoric legacy in the form of the Magdalenian conch.
By using a carbon dating system and other state-of-art scientific apparatuses, the scholars posited that the conch horn was a musical instrument to enjoy the prehistoric Magdalenian symphony in the cave. The cause of reason for the hypothesis is a purposefully cut-off apex of the conch horn as if to adjust for blowing and making sounds. In fact, a modern music player tried playing it at its initial discovery and found out that the tunes were ranged close to the notes of C, C Sharp, and D, making it the oldest wind instrument of its kind to this date. Moreover, the conch patterns were similar to those appearing in the pictures of cave walls, which scholars deduced that they were significant in denoting cultural functions in the communes.
However, although the connections between the cave art and the conch horn are intelligent hypotheses, the idea of the conch as a musical instrument doesn’t quite hold water to me. First of all, the image of a conch horn always conjures up the dystopian vision of the boys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In the story, boys blow the conch whenever they convoke meetings, which usually spring from sinister motives resulting in gloomy consequences. Also, the god of sea Poseidon blows a conch when he heralds his formidable divine presence, shaking the waves of the oceans. The use of the conch was to be more of notification of alarm for political or social events, not of a musical instrument for cultural appreciation. Besides, as aforesaid, a conch is often associated with the sea, unfittingly matched with hunter-gatherers in the mountain or sea-locked regions. Although scholars pointed out that the Magdalenian could travel to the shore and brought a conch as a souvenir, using it as a pastime wind instrument is a bit of stretch, a romantic imagination about the cave people differentiated from ruthless, animalistic, highly advanced kinds of ape.
If the scholars’ educated guess becomes a theory, then the Magdalenian conch horn will be entitled to the first place in the history of musical instruments. But considering the geographical reason and natural tendency related to a conch shell drawn upon historical and literary contexts, the Magdalenian conch shell must have been either a curiously collected souvenir from a trip to the shore or a valuable instrument to call upon meetings in the communes. Also, it could have been a convenient alarm to indicate a sight of animals for a hunt or protection. For melodious variations pleasing even to uncultured ears, the sounds of strings made from the leftovers of hunted animals hung on pieces of wood would be perfect for their hunter-gatherer entertainment.
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