Palaeolithic cave paintings

Acoustic properties of prehistoric caves examined for link with ancient paintings

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An acoustic study will explore where there is a relationship between the location of Palaeolithic cave paintings and points of reverberation in the caves.

The exact purpose of cave paintings, which date back as far as 40,000 years, is unknown. Many scholars suggest that they could form part of early religious rituals or serve a decorative purpose in spaces for hunting groups to bond.

One theory about the reasoning behind prehistoric cave paintings proposes that the sites for painting were picked due to the good acoustic properties of the caves. If this were true, it could suggest that music played an important role in cave rituals tens of thousands of years ago.

The academics who originally proposed this theory found that there was a correlation between “points of resonance” in three caves in France and the positions of Palaeolithic cave paintings.

“Many structures throughout history featured reverberant spaces because reverberant sound can be awe-inspiring,” said David Lubman, an independent researcher in acoustics and a fellow of the Acoustical Society of America. “With that said, there is currently not enough evidence to suggest that these Paleolithic artists deliberately chose reverberant spaces for their paintings.”

According to Mr Lubman, paintings are often found on non-porous stone, in spaces that have excellent acoustic properties. Whether this was a deliberate choice influenced by the acoustic properties of the caves, or whether paintings on porous stone have simply been lost over time, remains unknown.

In order to help decide whether there is a strong causative link between reverberant spaces and cave paintings, Mr Lubman is proposing a more systematic and detailed acoustic study of the caves with remaining paintings.

“If a significant degree of correlation between the location of the reverberant spaces and the presence of paintings were to be found, this alone would be an important discovery and opens up the possibility for new explanations,” said Mr Lubman. “It could, for example, be entirely possible that Palaeolithic cave artists initially chose spaces with non-porous stone because they were good canvasses for paintings and then subsequently discovered that they were also great locations to generate reverberant sound.”

“The benefits of acoustical scientists and archaeologists collaborating on such studies are clear. Together, we can work towards developing a deeper understanding of our past.”

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