Notes From Earth: Our Ancestors, the Acoustical Engineers

When priests at the temple complex of Chavín de Huántar in central Peru sounded their conch-shell trumpets 2,500 years ago, tones magnified and echoed by stone surfaces seemed to come from everywhere, yet nowhere. The effect must have seemed otherworldly, but there was nothing mysterious about its production. According to archaeologists at Stanford University, the temple’s builders created galleries, ducts, and ventilation shafts to channel sound. In short, the temple’s designers may have been not only expert architects but also skilled acoustical engineers.

The 4,000 year-old pictographs at Horseshoe Canyon in Utah may have been inspired by the spectacular acoustics there.

The findings add to a growing body of research suggesting that sound meant more to our ancestors than archaeologists once realized. We live in a sound-saturated society, full of iPods, thunderous special effects in movies, and thousand-watt car stereos. New discoveries in the young field of acoustic archaeology hint that just as we create elaborate sonic environments with our electronics, the ancients may have sculpted their soundscapes as well. Like many artistic endeavors, their efforts may have been rooted in an attempt to reach the divine.

Portals to the Spirit Worlds


Some of the first research on the importance of acoustics to prehistoric peoples was done by Iegor Reznikoff, an anthropologist of sound at Université Paris Ouest, who in the 1980s visited cave paintings and carvings in southern France that are about 25,000 years old, among the oldest known human art. A number of them are so far underground that scientists were puzzled as to why anyone would have gone there. Reznikoff, who has a habit of humming whenever he enters a space, noticed that in parts of the caves, his voice resonated as effectively as in any cathedral. He and a colleague mapped several caves and found that areas with the greatest resonance coincided with the concentration of artworks.

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