Stone Age Art Caves May Have Been Concert Halls

Ker Than
for National Geographic News
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?"

Since that moment, Reznikoff has found correlations between painting locations and the resonance of their surroundings in more than ten paleolithic caves across France with illustrations ranging from 25,000 to 15,000 years old.

Many are packed together in parts of the caves where the human voice is amplified and where songs and chants would have lingered in the air as abiding echoes.

Paul Pettitt, a paleolithic rock art expert at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. who was not involved in the study, said Reznikoff's theory could explain the puzzling distribution of paintings at many cave sites.

"In a number of decorated caves the images cluster in certain areas," Pettitt said. "They are not randomly distributed but seem deliberately placed, with areas of perfectly 'paintable' walls ignored, and in a number of cases the paintings cluster in areas of resonance."

Artistic Connection

Ian Cross, director of the Centre for Music and Science at the University of Cambridge, was not involved in the study.

Cross said Reznikoff's theory is "interesting" and warrants further investigation.

"What he's done strongly suggests that there are grounds for following this up with some properly controlled studies" involving detailed acoustical measurements, Cross said.

Pettitt, the University of Sheffield archaeologist, said Reznikoff's research is consistent with other work that suggests music and dance played an integral role in the lives of ancient people.

Instruments such as bone flutes and "roarers"—bone and ivory instruments that whir rhythmically when spun—have been found in decorated caves.

In rare instances, cave images include highly stylized females who appear to be dancing or enigmatic, part-animal "sorcerer" figures engaging in what seem to be transformational dances.

"This is therefore an artistic connection between dance and art. Perhaps in this case the art is recording specific ritual events," Pettitt said. "It is inconceivable that such rituals would have taken place in silence."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.