Caves, megaliths, and reverbs in the prehistoric world

I have a confession to make: I was an Anthropology major. I took some courses at CCRMA as an undergraduate, but my degree was in Anthropology, with a focus in archaeology. Instead of studying the types of things that make up my work nowadays, like electrical engineering and computer science, I spent my time learning about the relationship of environment to culture, hunter gatherers from an ecological perspective, the societies of Central and South America, the interaction between the fur trade and religion in Subarctic Canada, stuff like that. My favorite book from that era (or, at the very least, the book with the best title):

So it should come as no surprise that I am fascinated by the sounds of ancient buildings, caves, and other prehistoric constructions and dwellings. The study of ancient acoustics, or archaeoacoustics, covers a variety of sonic phenomena of the prehistoric world, from research into early musical instruments such as bone flutes and percussion instruments, to the possibility of whether grooves in pottery could have recorded sounds from thousands of years ago.

A number of books have been published on the subject of archaeo-acoutics. Paul Devereux, in “Stone Age Soundtracks: The Acoustic Archaeology of Ancient Sites,” provides a high-level summary of the different theories. A recent publication, “Archaeoacoustics,” edited by Chris Scarre and Graeme Lawson, collects a number of articles with a more scholarly bent. Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter provide an overview of the topic in “Spaces Speak, Are You Listening?” As far as web resources, the Acoustics and Music of British Prehistory Research Network provides an excellent bibliography and set of links to current research projects.

There are a lot of cool theories that have been posited in the last few decades in the archaeo-acoustic field. David Lubman has described how handclaps reflecting off of the staircase of a Chichen Itza pyramid are transformed into a chirping sound very close to the call of the quetzal. Aaron Watson and David Keating have conducted experiments in burial mounds throughout the British Isles, and found that the chambers tend to have a Helmholtz resonance in the 1 Hz to 7 Hz range. Watson and Keating experimented with drumming at a tempo that matched the frequency of the Helmholtz resonances, and have argued that the resulting infrasonics caused subjective effects in listener, such as elevated pulse rates and breathing. Robert Jahn and Paul Devereux have found that many chambered megalithic tombs had strong resonance frequencies in the 95 to 120 Hz range, which corresponds with the low baritone range of the human voice, and that exposure to this frequency could cause changes in brain activity that correspond to meditative and trance states.

Some of the theories, in my opinion, fall under the category of “just-so stories.” Great ideas, cool to think about, and absolutely unprovable. Without the use of a time machine, we have no idea what type of music was being played 20,000 years ago. It is safe to assume that people in the Paleolithic era were reacting to their sonic environment, as the caves and megaliths that ceremonies were (presumably) performed in have quite striking sonic characteristics. Beyond that, if there is no evidence of musical instruments on the site, there is very little evidence of what sorts of sounds were being made within these environments, all talk of resonances and infrasound aside.

While the evidence for what sounds were produced in prehistoric sites is often scant, there is strong evidence of awareness of striking acoustic characteristics in prehistoric times. Iegor Reznikoff has studied the location of Paleolithic art in European caves, and has found a strong correlation between the presence of art or distinctive markings in a given location, and the quality of the resonance in those locations. The resonance was most marked in niches or recesses that were decorated, and Reznikoff argues that it is inconceivable that the person(s) decorating these spaces would not have noticed the striking sonic quality of the space. Steven Waller has found a similar degree of correlation between the placement of rock art, and the distinctiveness of the echos within those locations. It may not be possible to know what sounds were being made thousands of years ago, but there is a fair amount of evidence that our ancestors had strong preferences about where these sounds were made.

In the next blog post, we’ll skip ahead a few thousand years, to discuss recent research conducted on the acoustics of a South American ceremonial site, and how the sonics of that site may have factored into societal control.

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