Old Shell, New Discovery

A few years ago, while taking inventory at the Natural History Museum of Toulouse, an artifact found in the cave of Marsoulas which has been sitting on the shelf for over 80 years got a second look by anthropologists. The cave, found in 1897 in the Pyrenean foothills of France, was the first decorated cave found in the area. The artifact in question was a conch shell discovered in the cave in 1931. It was a significant find at the time because the cave is nowhere near the Atlantic Ocean, so it was an indicator of movement and trading activity of the cave’s inhabitants 18,000 years ago. Beyond that, it was assumed the shell was some type of drinking vessel, and was not given much more attention.

During the later observation of this artifact, researchers noticed the broken apex of the shell which is one of the hardest and least breakable parts of the shell. This unusual feature made them think this artifact deserved closer inspection. Using technology unavailable in 1931 such as photogrammetry and computed tomography (CT) scans, they noticed on the surfaces at the broken apex that, “the organization of the impacts excludes any possibility of accidental fracture due to crashing waves while the shell was in the sea.”[1] They also noticed internal perforations in which the “outside of the nearly circular hole displays striations characteristic of tool skidding.” These and other observations were unmistakable indicators of human transformation of the shell.

More than recognizing this conch shell had been modified by humans, they recognized it had been modified for a purpose – these cave dwellers had made a musical instrument! To verify this, the researchers enlisted the help of a musicologist and horn player to play the horn and record the sound it made. In this experiment, the horn player was able to play distinct notes (C, C sharp and D). While it was playable, the musicologist suggested that the roughness of the apex opening indicated there may have been a mouth piece that once fit that opening as is common with other conch horns – playing the horn as is could have damaged the horn player’s mouth.

(A) Sagittal section of the three-dimensional (3D) model of the shell that makes it possible to visualize the hole drilled at the level of the sixth spire (after opening the apex; see Fig. 2), probably to introduce a tube to facilitate the fitting of a mouthpiece. (B) Detail of the circular perforation drilled from the apex. The streaks on the edge are due to a skidding tool. (C) Top view of the 3D model showing the perforation. (D) Three-dimensional (3D) cross section at the level of the seventh spire. (E) The conch of Marsoulas in its Magdalenian context (hypothetical restitution). (F) Conch from Southeast Asia, the mouth of which is covered with a black coating, intended to protect the lips of the blower. (G and H) Conch from Syria and detail of its chipped mouth, close to that of Marsoulas. (I and J) Conch from New Zealand and its mouthpiece made of a decorated bone tube. [3D model captures (A to D): C. Fritz; drawing (E): G. Tosello; photos (F to J): Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac/E. Kasarhérou.] This figure is copied from the research publication indicated in the footnote at the end of this article.

So, why were these observations and conclusions missed over 80 years ago? The lack of modern technology provides only a limited explanation because these instruments were used to confirm a suspicion, and not to make the discovery. It likely has more to do with the assumptions which were made back in 1931 – that the upper Pleistocene cultures were not sophisticated enough to make musical instruments. This was one of two things which caught my attention about this reported discovery.

One of the things which can hamper scientific research and discovery is the unfounded assumptions made in the course of investigations. Another example of this was the assumption made by biochemists and geneticists that the repeated nucleotide sequences found in DNA were artifacts of evolutionary processes, and therefore considered “junk DNA”. Later research has found that, on the contrary, much of this DNA has very important and complex regulatory functions in the expression of genes.

The other aspect of this study which caught my attention was the ability of these researchers to detect intelligent agency. While no doubt crude in nature, the impact marks on this shell were distinct enough from natural causes the researchers were able to conclude with great certainty the marks were made by these early humans. They could distinguish this because studying known intentional transforming work shows that intentional action looks very different from random action.

Unfortunately, in some fields of science, when clear signs of intelligent agency are present, they are ignored because they do not support the commitment the scientist has to naturalism – the need to explain everything in the world according to natural causes. But this is an unwarranted assumption because we have things like this conch shell which did not result from natural causes.

When we observe complex parts in living organisms which have a finely-tuned orchestration of parts, when we see cells functioning with complex interdependent systems, when we see highly ordered information processing systems within cells – all which bear a resemblance to intelligently designed systems by humans – we should question our assumptions about un-intentioned causation.

What if the features within living organisms which have the appearance of intelligent design actually were intelligently designed? What could that perspective tell us about how these things operate, and how they originated? What have we missed? How many more discoveries and deeper understandings await us if we are willing to reexamine old evidence (and make new observations) with the possibility of design in mind? This does not mean we should expect to explain everything in nature as a product of design. Some things do happen by accident. But when we see things which possess elements of design, we should be willing to take a second look.

The image in the header of this article from C. FRITZ, MUSÉUM D’HISTOIRE NATURELLE DE TOULOUSE

[1] C. Fritz, etal. First record of the Sound Produced by the Oldest Upper Paleolithic Seashell Horn. Science Advances (10 Feb 2021) Vol. 7, no. 7. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abe9510 accessed 02/12/21.

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