Chris Scarre
Painting by Resonance
338 (1989): 382

Did the painted caves of western Europe once resound to the music of Palaeolithic chants? Such is the thesis put forward by Iegor Reznikoff and Michel Dauvois in the latest issue of the Bulletin de Ia Societe Prehistonque Francaise (85. 238-246; 1988). The authors have studied three caves in the Ariege department at the foot of the French Pyrenees. Their results suggest that the acoustics of the caves played a significant part in determining where the paintings were located, and this observation leads directly to the supposition that music or chants were important elements in  cave ceremonies around 20,000 years ago.

Reznikoff and Dauvois rely on the fact that in certain places ("points of resonance") the caves resonate in response to particular notes. They proceeded slowly through the cave using their voices to produce a series of notes spanning almost three octaves, from C to G3. They extended the range of notes for a further two octaves by harmonics and whistling. Where there was a resonance  response, they recorded the location and the particular note eliciting the response. They used these observations to draw up a resonance map of the cave.

The resonance of the caves is not in itself surprising. but the significance of the study becomes apparent when the  authors  compare their points of resonance with the location of cave paintings.  They draw three main conclusions. First, most of the cave paintings are at or within one metre of points of resonant. The Grande Salle at Portel, for example, which gave no resonance response, also has relatively few paintings. Second, most of the points of resonance correspond to locations with cave paintings. Indeed, the best points of resonance are always marked in this way. Finally, the authors claim that the location of some of the paintings can be explained only by the resonance of that particular location. A good example is number 23 at Portel (see figure). where a particularly effective point of resonance is marked by red painted dots, as there is not enough room for a full painted figure.

Reznikoff and Dauvois remark from their own experience on the impressive effect of cave resonance, which would have been all the more striking in the flickering half-light of the simple lamps or tapers used by the original artists. Drums, flutes and whistles may have been used in cave rituals - bone flutes have been found at several Palaeolithic sites in Europe of roughly the same age as the paintings. The potential of cave resonance would, however, be elicited only by the much greater range of the human voice. The image of the cave artists chanting incantations in front of their paintings may not be too fanciful. Reconstructing prehistoric sounds is inevitably a risky and ambitious venture, but this study is of particular value in drawing new attention to the likely importance of music and singing in the rituals of our early ancestors.

Chris Scarre
Department of Archacology
University of Cambridge
Downing Street
Cambridge CB2 3DZ, UK






Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles