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Cavemen Divas?

July 8, 2008

MSNBC ran an intriguing article a few days ago about a new study which suggests a link between pre-historic cave paintings and singing.

"Analyzing the famous, ochre-splashed cave walls of France, scientists found that the most densely painted areas were also those with the best acoustics," wrote MSNBC LiveScience reporter Heather Whipps in her story. "Humming into some bends in the wall even produced sounds mimicking the animals painted there."

Researcher Iegor Reznikoff, a specialist in ancient music at the University of Paris X in Nanterre, suggests that cave dwellers used sound to communicate with each other as the cave systems were so dark, with light from torches only extending a few feet. "Because Paleolithic humans had a deep connection with the melodic properties that helped them navigate in a cave, they likely celebrated the unique acoustics by singing in conjunction with their painting sessions," Whipps reports. "Why would the Paleolithic tribes choose preferably resonant locations for painting," Reznikoff is reported as saying in the article, "if it were not for making sounds and singing in some kind of ritual celebrations related with the pictures?"

It's an interesting idea. It's also sort of appealing, in a Hollywood screenplay-minded way, to think of groups of ancient people gathering in a brightly-adorned nook to celebrate and perform rites accompanied by music. But I wonder if the connection between the resonance of particular parts of a wall in a cave and the presence of paintings has a simpler explanation? Perhaps it's just a case of "whistle while you work" -- of ancient artists simply enjoying the sounds of their own voices while undertaking an art project?

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