Sunday, March 25, 2018


Lascaux cave, France.,
Public domain.

The old idea that rock art was produced in places influenced by the presence of echoes has resurfaced in a new manifestation. "For years, researchers have known that rock artists didn't paint their bison, bears, lions and other images in random locations. Art tends to show up on places where echoes in rocky grottos and caves bounce back to listening human ears. That suggests there's something about the acoustical landscape of caves that may have inspired or focused ancient artists. Archaeologists have even used the pattern as a way to find new cave art" (Fessenden 2018)

"Inspired by this pattern, MIT linguistics professor Shigeru Miyagawa and a team of researchers from Tokyo and Brazil came up with an idea. What if cave art represented a way that early humans tried to communicate about the sounds they heard by visually representing what the echoes sounded like." (Fessenden 2018)

I have written elsewhere (March 10, 2010, Echoes at Rock Art Sites, and October 14, 2012, Echoes at Rock Art Sites - Revisited) about my skepticism toward this theory. Rock art is generally produced on the smoothest,flattest, surfaces available, exactly the same surfaces that produce the best echoes. Yes, rock art and echoes often go together, but that is a coincidence, not evidence of an intentional relationship. Many years ago, at the Grand Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon, Utah, I observed a strange young man running around tapping on the rocks in front of the rock art panel and recording the resulting echoes (he was inordinately proud of his mallet which he explained was made from elk antler). Indeed, I have been at rock art sites which produce marvelous echoes, the Grand Gallery being one, but I am still skeptical about there being an intentional correlation. How many wonderful rock art sites do not produce strong echoes?

Perhaps, as Miyagawa posited, there are some cave paintings meant to visually represent what echoes sound like. (Fessenden 2018) But that is certainly not what most of them are about.

Chauvet cave, France.,
Public domain.

"Some specific features of cave art may provide clues about how our symbolic, multifaceted language capabilities evolved, according to a new paper co-authored by MIT linguist Shigeru Miyagawa." (Dizikes 2018)

"A key to this idea is that cave art is often located in acoustic "hot spots," where sound echoes strongly, as some scholars have observed. Those drawings are located in deeper, harder-to-access parts of caves, indicating that acoustics was a principal reason for the placement of drawings whithin caves. The drawings, in turn, may represent the sounds that early humans generated in those spots." (Dizikes 2018)

"In the new paper, this convergence of sound and drawing is what the authors call a "cross-modality information transfer," a convergence of auditory information and visual art that, the authors write, "allowed early humans to enhance their ability to convey symbolic thinking." The combination of sounds and images is one of the things that characterizes human language today, along with its symbolic aspect and its ability to generate infinite new sentences."  (Dizikes 2018)

Rouffignac cave, France.
Public domain.

"Cave art was part of the package deal in terms of how homo sapiens came to have this very high-level cognitive processing," says Miyagawa, a professor of linguistics and the Kochi-Manjiro Professor of Japanese Language and Culture at MIT. "You have this very concrete cognitive process that converts an acoustic signal into some mental representation and externalizes it as a visual" Cave artists were not just early-day Monets, drawing impressions of the outdoors at their leisure. Rather, they may have been engaged in a process of communication." (Dizikes 2018)

The last couple of sentences above shows how dangerous it can be for someone to make statements about something that he knows nothing about. The idea that Monet was not aware that he was engaged in the process of communication displays a depth of ignorance about art in general, and Monet's impressionism in particular, that throws all of the other assumptions about art's role in this theory into doubt. Monet approached his Impressionism in very much the same way that a scientist approaches his subject. Monet was studying, and trying to reproduce, the effects of light on various surfaces, and then convey that effect to the viewer. That cave art was "part of the package deal in terms of how homo sapiens came to have this very high-level cognitive processing" is obvious, and should not have to be spelled out.

Chauvet cave, France.,
Public domain.

On May 21, 2016, I wrote on RockArtBlog, in Rock Art, and the Development of Intelligence, that "the creation of this rock art not only signaled a certain level of cognitive development, it actually contributed to that development, and the different types of creations made different contributions to that development." (Faris 2016) A recent study had proven that the process of making stone tools actually led to changes in the brain that could be seen in brain circuitry scans, and I postulated that the same process would be found in the creation of rock art. Indeed, as the creation of different types of tools caused different changes in the brain, so too would the creation of different types of art.
"The results of our own imaging studies on stone toolmaking led us recently to propose that neural circuits, including the inferior frontal gyrus, underwent changes to adapt to the demands of Paleolithic toolmaking and then were co-opted to support primitive forms of communication using gestures and, perhaps, vocalizations. This protolinguistic communication would then have been subjected to selection, ultimately producing the specific adaptations that support modern human language." (Stout 2016:35)
In other words, like any muscle in the human body, these abilities would be improved by using them. The process of doing so actually enhanced the brain in a way that increased these abilities. Some of the assumptions in Miyagawa's theory would seem to bear this out, that producing cave art was a vital step in the cognitive development of homo sapiens. In this, I agree that Miyagawa got some of this right, but notice that Stout's study did not mention echoes.

So to cut to the chase, did the selection of sites for rock art have anything to do with echoes heard in caves? Probably - in some cases. Did the production of rock art have anything to do with cognitive development in early homo sapiens? Definitely. Is all rock art dependent upon the acoustic properties of its location for meaning? Definitely not.

NOTE: Images in this posting were retrieved from the internet with a search for public domain photographs. If any of these images are not intended to be public domain, I apologize, and will happily provide the picture credits if the owner will contact me with them. For further information on these reports you should read the originals at the sites listed below.


Dizikes, Peter,
2018 New Study Links Ancient Cave Art Drawings and the Emergence of Language, February 22, 2018, -language.

Faris, Peter,
2016 Rock Art, and the Development of Intelligence, May 21, 2016,

Fessenden, Marissa
2018 Did Cave Acoustics Play a Role in the Development of Language? February 26, 2018,

Stout, Dietrich
2016    Cognitive Psychology: Tales of a Stone Age Neuroscientist, pages 28-35, Scientific American, Volume 314, Number 4, April, 2016.

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