Scientists have played a 3,000-year-old conch shell found at a pre-Inca site in Peru. You can click here and here to listen to some samples.
“You can really feel it in your chest,” says Jonathan Abel, an acoustician at Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. “It has a rough texture like a tonal animal roar.”
Archaeologists had unearthed 20 complete Strombus galeatus marine shell trumpets in 2001 at Chavín de Huántar, an ancient ceremonial center in the Andes. Polished, painted and etched with symbols, the shells had well-formed mouthpieces and distinct V-shaped cuts. The cuts may have been used as a rest for the player’s thumb, says study co-author Perry Cook, a computer scientist at Princeton University and avid shell musician, or to allow the player to see over the instrument while walking.
To record the tunes and understand the acoustic context in which the instruments, called pututus, were played, the researchers traveled to Chavín.
As an expert shell musician blew into the horn, researchers recorded the sound’s path via four tiny microphones placed inside the player’s mouth, the shell’s mouthpiece, the shell’s main body and at the shell’s large opening, or bell. Similar to a bugle, the instruments only sound one or two tones, but like a French horn, the pitch changes when the player plunges his hand into the bell.