This is somewhat old news by this point, but a new report in the journal Nature reports that a nearly complete Upper Palaeolithic bone flute (and fragments of several others) dating from around 35,000 years before the present have been recovered from Hohle Fels cave in Germany—the same location where the recently-reported Venus figurine was excavated.
So here we have a musical instrument from the early Aurignacian that was found in a cave in relative proximity to a Venus figurine. What’s going on?
The question of what part music played in the decorated caves is not new, and researchers have been studying the acoustic nature of caves in relation to the decorated panels for some time. Reznikoff and Dauvois note in their 1989 study of three painted caves from France (Le Portel,Fontanet, and Niaux) that it is sometimes the case that paintings are located in close proximity to “points of resonance” of certain notes. Scarre (1989) points out that
The resonance of the caves is not in itself surprising. but the significance of the study becomes apparent when the authors compare their points of resonance with the location of cave paintings. They draw three main conclusions. First, most of the cave paintings are at or within one metre of points of resonant. The Grande Salle at Portel, for example, which gave no resonance response, also has relatively few paintings. Second, most of the points of resonance correspond to locations with cave paintings. Indeed, the best points of resonance are always marked in this way. Finally, the authors claim that the location of some of the paintings can be explained only by the resonance of that particular location. A good example is number 23 at Portel. where a particularly effective point of resonance is marked by red painted dots, as there is not enough room for a full painted figure. (382)
In fact, rock art worldwide is often associated with sites with interesting acoustics (see, for example, the extensive list at independent scholar (?) Steven J. Waller’s Web site).
It’s the case that rhythmic music (e.g. drumming) can cause altered states of consciousness in the human brain, which is the same today as it was during the ice age—Upper Palaeolithic artisans were anatomically modern humans, after all. Clottes and Lewis-Williams, in their 1996 book, Le chamanes de la préhistoire, argue that these altered states of consciousness, possibly induced during shamanic contexts, and the hallucinations sometimes experienced may have been the inspiration of some ice age paintings.
It’s interesting in my mind that these flutes were recovered from an Upper Palaeolithic cave that is associated with other ice age art objects, but what that means in the broader scheme of prehistoric art in this one time and place is still, as always, unclear.