Stone Age Art Caves May Have Been Concert Halls

July 2, 2008

Prehistoric peoples chose places of natural resonant sound to draw their famed cave sketches, according to new analyses of paleolithic caves in France.

In at least ten locations, drawings of horses, bison, and mammoths seem to match locations that focus, amplify, and transform the sounds of human voices and musical instruments.

"In the cave of Niaux in Ariège, most of the remarkable paintings are situated in the resonant Salon Noir, which sounds like a Romanesque chapel," said Iegor Reznikoff, an acoustics expert at the University of Paris who conducted the research.

The sites would therefore have served as places of natural power, supporting the theory that decorated caves were backdrops for religious and magical rituals.

An intriguing possibility—but one that Reznikoff admits is hard to test—is that the acoustic properties of a cave partly influenced what animals were painted on its walls.

For example, "maybe horses are related to spaces that sound a certain way," he said.

Reznikoff will present his latest findings this week at the annual meeting of the Acoustics Society of America in Paris.

Strategic Placement

Reznikoff first noticed the strategic placement of cave art while visiting Le Portel, a paleolithic cave in France, in 1983.

An expert in the acoustics of 11th- and 12th-century European churches, Reznikoff often hums to himself when entering a room for the first time so he can "feel its sounds."

He was surprised to discover that in some of the rooms in Le Portel decorated with painted animals, his humming became noticeably louder and clearer.

"Immediately the idea came," he told National Geographic News. "Would there be a relationship between the location of the painting and the quality of the resonance in these locations?"

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