04 July 2008

Ancient Cave Art & Echolocation

I've always been fascinated by ancient cave paintings. Be they animals, human figures or more abstract images like spirals or odd-shaped symbols there's just something amazing about them. They are the proof that, even in prehistory, our very distant ancestors were not only capable of abstract thought but also capable of expressing themselves.

There are many theories attached to these ancient paintings. The animal images could have been painted to help hunters attract/become/honor the spirits of the animals they would have to kill to survive. The images of vulvae could have been ancient pornography or, more likely to my mind, meant to promote fertility and the perpetuation of offspring. The symbols and other abstract images could mean just about anything. Considering that what we call shamanism today was the norm back then there were most likely hallucinogenics used that not only opened eyes and minds but inspired the art of the day. But some of the art could have a more down to earth reason behind it.

A new study suggests that certain images were painted in certain areas where the acoustics were best. And the only way to test acoustics is to make music. According to a LiveScience article:

Ancient hunters painted the sections of their cave dwellings where singing, humming and music sounded best, a new study suggests.

Analyzing the famous, ochre-splashed cave walls of France, the most densely painted areas were also those with the best acoustics, the scientists found. Humming into some bends in the wall even produced sounds mimicking the animals painted there.

On the one hand it could be they tested the acoustics and painted as a way of making a guide to cave systems. Singing or humming to test the space of a pitch black unexplored cave is one very useful way of mapping out a space. Perhaps certain images were used like road signs: "curve ahead" and the like. But it's also quite likely that the music and paintings were aspects of ritual. Or both. It makes me wonder: which came first? The music or the paintings? And how did these two activities come together? It's the beginning of religion and the beginning of ritual that fascinates me most. What we call witchcraft and paganism today has its roots in these ancient ways; without them we wouldn't be doing what we do today.


Marion said...

How absolutely fascinating! Acoustical paintings...and I believe these paintings were done to honour a person, place or thing. Great post!

Livia Indica said...

Thanks. I couldn't help but blog about it when I first read of it. I always knew ancient cave peoples were artistic but singing? That's a new one!

Mahud said...


I love the art at the Cave of Lascaux (Click the 'Discover link' and you can even take a guided tour :D ). There's also a pretty cool film over at YouTube: The Lascaux Prehistory Of Art.

Livia Indica said...

Hi Mahud! Thanks for visiting my little blog. And thanks for the links, very cool.