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5 July 2008
Stone Age art caves may have been concert halls

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 Ari├Ęge, 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.
     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 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. 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.
     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." Pettitt added that 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.

Source: National Geographic News (2 July 2007)

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