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Book Summary: How We Got to Now

Author: Steven Johnson

Substory: River Cure

Roughly one million years ago, the seas retreated from the basin that surrounds modern-day Paris, leaving a ring of limestone deposits that had once been active coral reefs. Over time, the River Cure in Burgundy slowly carved its way through some of those limestone blocks, creating a network of caves and tunnels that would eventually be festooned with stalactites and stalagmites formed by rainwater and carbon dioxide. Archeological findings suggest that Neanderthals and early modern humans used the caves for shelter and ceremony for tens of thousands of years. In the early 1990s, an immense collection of ancient paintings was discovered on the walls of the cave complex in Arcy-sur-Cure: over a hundred images of bison, woolly mammoths, birds, fish—even, most hauntingly, the imprint of a child’s hand. Radiometric dating determined that the images were thirty thousand years old. Only the paintings at Chauvet, in southern France, are believed to be older.

For understandable reasons, cave paintings are conventionally cited as evidence of the primordial drive to represent the world in images. Eons before the invention of cinema, our ancestors would gather together in the firelit caverns and stare at flickering images on the wall. But in recent years, a new theory has emerged about the primitive use of the Burgundy caves, one focused not on the images of these underground passages, but rather on the sounds.

A few years after the paintings in Arcy-sur-Cure were discovered, a music ethnographer from the University of Paris named Iegor Reznikoff began studying the caves the way a bat would: by listening to the echoes and reverberations created in different parts of the cave complex. It had long been apparent that the Neanderthal images were clustered in specific parts of the cave, with some of the most ornate and dense images appearing more than a kilometer deep. Reznikoff determined that the paintings were consistently placed at the most acoustically interesting parts of the cave, the places where the reverberation was the most profound. If you make a loud sound standing beneath the images of Paleolithic animals at the far end of the Arcy-sur-Cure caves, you hear seven distinct echoes of your voice. The reverberation takes almost five seconds to die down after your vocal chords stop vibrating. Acoustically, the effect is not unlike the famous “wall of sound” technique that Phil Spector used on the 1960s records he produced for artists such as the Ronettes and Ike and Tina Turner. In Spector’s system, recorded sound was routed through a basement room filled with speakers and microphones that created a massive artificial echo. In Arcy-sur-Cure, the effect comes courtesy of the natural environment of the cave itself.

Reznikoff’s theory is that Neanderthal communities gathered beside the images they had painted, and they chanted or sang in some kind of shamanic ritual, using the reverberations of the cave to magically widen the sound of their voices. (Reznikoff also discovered small red dots painted at other sonically rich parts of the cave.) Our ancestors couldn’t record the sounds they experienced the way they recorded their visual experience of the world in paintings. But if Reznikoff is correct, those early humans were experimenting with a primitive form of sound engineering—amplifying and enhancing that most intoxicating of sounds: the human voice.