The Link between Cave Paintings and Sound

For most of us watching television will form part of our leisure activities today, indeed studies show that most people in the United Kingdom watch television for at least two hours a day.  Television, or to refer to it as broadcast media, so permitting the inclusion of Internet downloads and other audio visual media, informs us, educates and entertains.  Through the use of images in conjunction with sound we gain an impression of the world around us.  It seems our ancestors may have felt the same way.  Audio visual media so dominates our lives that it would be difficult to imagine a world without it.  A study by a French acoustics expert from the University of Paris has linked the sites of ancient paintings in caves to areas of significant sound resonance thus connecting these paintings with sounds.  The work by Iegor Reznikoff and his team indicate a strong link between the most acoustically resonant place in a cave, where sounds echo and reverberate the most with the placing of cave paintings on the nearby walls.

If the team’s findings are correct then it seems that our Stone Age ancestors also linked sounds with pictures to help them understand their world, just as we do today when we watch television.

For Iegor Reznikoff, studying the resonance of passageways and caverns where Stone Age people lived, provides an extra dimension to our perception and understanding of cave art.

Thousands of years later, scientists can study what remains of the paintings but they cannot listen to the stone-age music and sounds made by our ancestors who created the artworks.  We can only speculate on the significance of sound and music to these people, but bone flutes have been found in association with these sites and the location of the paintings indicate a relationship between the cave paintings and sound.

Is there a link between Cave Paintings and Acoustics?

Picture Credit: French Ministry of Culture

When the most-resonant spot was located in a very narrow passageway too difficult for painting, due to the lack of illumination from the primitive torch lights, red marks are often found, as if the resonance maximum had to be signified in some way. This correlation of paintings and music, Reznikoff states, provides “the best evidence for the ritualistic meanings of the paintings and of the use of the adorned caves.”

Over this weekend Iegor Reznikoff and his associates will be conducting a tour of a prehistoric cave to illustrate the relationship between sounds and the cave wall art.  The team have even suggested that humming into some of the alcoves and passageways produces sounds similar to the animals that are depicted on the walls.  Did these ancient hunter/gatherers feel inspired by these sounds to reproduce the animals themselves as cave art?

It is true that communities today living closer to nature such as the Masai of Kenya have a heightened sense of hearing than those of city dwellers.  Sight and sound are important senses in an environment when the need to become aware of approaching danger is a successful survival strategy.  The cave dwellers of the Upper Palaeolithic may have conducted rituals combining the images and the sounds, the study also claims that since sound travels further in darkness compared to the light cast by a flame, these ancient humans may have used sound as a form of echo location to explore caves.

Reznikoff will publish his paper at the Acoustical Society of America meeting in Paris.  The paper provides data on a study of caves using a trained vocalist.  The singer was sent through the caves testing different sounds and pitches in various locations.  Spots of maximum resonance, or places where the voice was most amplified and clear, were noted in each section and later laid over a map of the cave drawings. The vast majority of the paintings, up to 90 percent in some cases, were located directly at, or very near, the spots where the acoustics were the absolute best, they found.

The phenomenon isn’t limited to the interior of caves, either. Studies have been done at some outdoor Palaeolithic sites in France and Finland, and the sound-painting connection is also strong, Reznikoff said.

This new study comes at a time when scientists are expressing grave concerns over the preservation of prehistoric cave art.  Many sites are becoming damaged by modern day pollution and drastic steps are being taken to try to protect a number of caves, such as the famous cave at Lascaux in France.

To read an article about this: Famous Prehistoric Cave Paintings Under Threat

This article has been reproduced from an American Institute of Physics Article.

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