We also know that life must not have been too terrible, since people had the time and energy to make music. And after all, they didn’t need an instrument to make music in the first place. “With a voice, you can make music,” says archaeologist Carole Fritz of the University of Toulouse, a corresponding author on the paper. That is, the shell is extraneous: “It’s not an obligation,” she says.
“I think music is a very symbolic art for people,” Fritz adds. It would have had double symbolism, really—used in both everyday life and for spiritual practices. “For these people, the spiritual and life are the same thing,” he says.
This find emphasizes the richness of Upper Paleolithic culture, says University of Victoria paleolithic archaeologist April Nowell, who wasn’t involved in the research. “We have music, we have art, we have textiles, we have ceramics,” she says. “These were really complex people.”
We can also look to our own psyches for clues about the importance of music among the peoples of the Upper Paleolithic. Think about how music galvanizes modern humans: In the Before Times, we paid hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to cram into venues to not only hear our favorite artists, but to vibe with like-minded fans. We get chills when we hear haunting music, and get pumped as hell when we listen to Led Zeppelin III (“Immigrant Song” and “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp,” especially). And we still use music to get ourselves amped up to party. “I’ve been really interested in the Upper Paleolithic,” says Nowell, “in terms of how music might have been used to manipulate or redirect people’s feelings—about people both inside their culture or outside their culture—and how it could redirect action.”
This conch shell was far from the first-ever instrument. Archaeologists have found 40,000-year-old flutes made of hallowed-out animal bones with holes drilled into them. Ancient peoples likely also made percussive instruments out of gourds that could be shaken and taut animal skins that could be drummed. But those materials, unfortunately, are perishable, whereas this conch shell has persisted through the ages, still bearing literal marks of human ingenuity.
And here we are nearly 20,000 years later, listening to the same bellowing music of our very, very distant ancestors. “There’s nothing else on Earth, I think, that’s as powerful as music for bringing people together,” says Nowell. “This does it for us, even though we’re separated by 18,000 years.”
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