Ancient Echoes

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In her book, Sacred Space, Sacred Sound: The Acoustic Mysteries of Holy Places, music therapist Susan Elizabeth Hale attempts a sonic link between our ancient cave-dwelling ancestors and modern spiritual aesthetics: “Canyons, caves, and rock amphitheaters were sought out and sanctified for the purpose of amplifying prayers. Later, sacred architecture was created to house our song-prayers so that Spirit could hear us and reverberate us into stillness—into a living silence where we could listen more closely to the pulse of life.” An acoustic leap from Paleolithic caves to acoustically vibrant cathedrals might seem a speculative stretch. However, according to University of Paris archaeoacoustician Iegor Reznikoff, pictographs occur in reverberant parts of a cave, and red dots were often used to mark off resonant spots too difficult to paint. This suggests that ritual chant played a role in cave paintings.

Reznikoff’s acoustic discoveries add potential clarity to ongoing debates about the purpose of Paleolithic pictographs. The images—made by hand prints, daubed fur, or sprayed pigment from the mouth or a bone tube—typically portray game animals. This holds true wherever the paintings are found (Europe, Africa, Mexico, Australia, and Southeast Asia), implying a universality of impulse and function. Some see them as inventories of animals killed, or records of animal migrations. Others contend they were used as hunting magic, perhaps to “catch” an animal’s spirit in order to make the hunt easier, or to increase the abundance of animals encountered. David Lewis-Williams, founder and past director of the Rock Art Research Institute, imagines shamans retreating into the darkness of the caves, entering a trance state, and painting their visions.

Each of these theories addresses the uniqueness of art-adorned caves, which have no signs of ongoing habitation, and are often too remote to access for everyday usage. They were special places set aside for a special purpose. Their acoustic richness best complies with a shamanistic ritual involving painting and chant. Dance might also be added to the mix, as a few images include stylized females or animalesque “sorcerers” engaged in transformational dance. Reznikoff explains in a 2012 paper, “On the Sound Related to Painted Caves and Rocks”: “When the cave has been vocally explored and the best resonant places discovered, then, in such resonant locations, provided there is a panel or panels that are suitable for painting or that can be prepared for painting by scraping, it would be natural, indeed, to paint pictures of animals. A ritual dedicated to the animal is best performed in such a place, since a ritual is always done with chant, sounds, and possibly dances, if the space is large enough. This is why the paintings are mostly located in resonant places.”

These findings support a twofold ethnomusicological observation: all known cultures have vocal music, and all cultures associate singing and chanting with the supernatural. Human beings not only possess reasoning capacity (Homo Sapiens), but also an instinct for music (Homo Musicus) and a yearning for transcendence (Homo Religiosus). Since the dawn of humanity, people have sought contact with energies greater than themselves through music-infused rituals. More often than not, these rituals have taken place in especially resonant settings, where voices are amplified and echo back—a mysterious reverberation analogous to the voice of the cosmos.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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