Stone age musicians responsible for cave art

New research on prehistoric cave art sites has shown the artists sought out areas with specific acoustic properties, perhaps linked to music in these caves


Around 40,000 years ago modern humans first arrived in Europe. Shortly afterwards they began making cave art. These images were often created deep in uninhabited caves. It would have been lonely and dark. But would they have been quiet? New research suggests music was actually a key part of the cave art process.

Studies of cave art sites in Spain have found the artists sought out caves with certain acoustic properties. In particular, they favoured parts of caves that would resonate with low frequencies but not reverberate too much. This would create the conditions ideal for speech and music. Perhaps these sites weren’t as quiet as once thought.

Setting the stage

We’ve all seen pictures of stone age cave art. Maybe some of you have even been fortunate enough to see it in person. But seeing it on a computer screen or even in a museum rarely captures what it was like in those caves. So let me set the scene for you.

See, what people often don’t realise is that many of these caves show no signs of being inhabited. For example, people so rarely ventured into the famous Chauvet cave most of the “archaeology” was actually caused by bears making their home in the cave! As an aside, this caused countless issues when trying to figure out how old the cave was, as there was precious little archaeology to date.

Another thing people often forget is how deep into caves the art was made. Returning to Chauvet, most of the art there is hundreds of metres from the entrance, often round corners. No natural light could reach the artists. They would have to rely on campfires and candles, whose orange, flickering lights creates a unique effect on the cave walls.

The same image under actual prehistoric conditions versus “normal” photo conditions (inset)

This also means that even at inhabited sites, most people stuck around the entrance where there was actually light. As such, the art there was still quite dark and isolated. Crucially, this would also roughly translate into sound. Little from the outside world would reach that far into caves.

Noisy caves

The isolated nature of cave art sites has long attracted the attention of researchers. For instance, it might help explain why cave art was made. Since it requires so much effort to reach, surely it was made with some important purpose in mind. Perhaps as part of some religious ritual. Which, after all, is the default explanation for any archaeological phenomenon.

Even the sound component of this isolation has been discussed since at least the 80s. However, only recently has it become possible to rigorously investigate this idea. Scientists are finally able to reliably study the acoustics of a cave and compare it, statistically, with the art found in it. The results suggest that the two aren’t entirely independent.

The most thorough of this research took place at five cave art sites in Spain. Researchers would carefully map the location of the images in the cave. Then they’d take various acoustic measurements of these chambers. The results show a statistically significant relationship between the caves prehistoric people painted in and the acoustic profile of those rooms.

Specifically, these artists went for parts of the cave that would be good, acoustically speaking, for singing and speaking in. At least, parts that were good by modern standards. Notably, they shunned places where reverberation was too high or too low. Current musicians would likely be happy with the acoustics of these caves. Assuming they didn’t mind the dark, of course.

As an interesting addendum, prehistoric images of dots and lines follow this pattern even stronger than the average image. Whatever was going on with those pictures, the acoustics seems to have been even more important.

Dots from El Castillo Cave, one of the places even more entwined with acoustics than average.

Caveats

No doubt this research can fuel a whole bunch more speculation about why people made cave art. But it is worth noting that the relationships found in this research – whilst significant – weren’t particularly strong. It seems that acoustics was just one factor influencing their choice of cave. And given the weakness of the relationships, it probably wasn’t the dominant factor.

That said, the link does still exist. So it seems likely that, whatever people were doing in these caves, music and noise was somehow involved. I like to imagine it was nice, mellow music but that would be an assumption on my part. I’m sure the stone age had its fair share of awful musicians, just like today.

 

References

Bon, C., Caudy, N., de Dieuleveult, M., Fosse, P., Philippe, M., Maksud, F., Beraud-Colomb, É., Bouzaid, E., Kefi, R., Laugier, C. and Rousseau, B., 2008. Deciphering the complete mitochondrial genome and phylogeny of the extinct cave bear in the Paleolithic painted cave of Chauvet. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences105(45), pp.17447-17452.

Fazenda, B., Scarre, C., Till, R., Pasalodos, R.J., Guerra, M.R., Tejedor, C., Peredo, R.O., Watson, A., Wyatt, S., Benito, C.G. and Drinkall, H., 2017. Cave acoustics in prehistory: Exploring the association of Palaeolithic visual motifs and acoustic response. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America142(3), pp.1332-1349.

Pettitt, P., 2008. Art and the Middle-to-Upper Paleolithic transition in Europe: comments on the archaeological arguments for an early Upper Paleolithic antiquity of the Grotte Chauvet art. Journal of human evolution55(5), pp.908-917.

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