Our Ancestors, the Acoustical Engineer

What was ancient man really like? Were they less intelligent or sophisticated than us? Were they inferior? I think there are many people today who’d like to think we’re superior to them in every way for a variety of reasons. But when we examine the evidence, it’s clear that they were not inferior; they were much like us in many ways, and perhaps superior in other ways.

I found an interesting article in Discover Magazine titled, Notes From Earth: Our Ancestors, the Acoustical Engineer. This article did a masterful job demonstrating some of the capabilities of ancient man- not just as “expert architects but also skilled acoustical engineers”.

Archaeologists are beginning to understand how important sound was to our ancestors through the emerging field of acoustic archaeology. For example, archaeologists at Stanford University have demonstrated that the temple complex of Chavín de Huántar in central Peru would have produced some amazing effects when the ancient people sounded their conch-shell trumpets; the tones would have been magnified, echoing off the stone surfaces, creating an “otherworldly” illusion, as if coming from “everywhere, yet nowhere”. These sounds resulted from the way the builders sculpted “galleries, ducts and ventilation shafts to channel sound”.

In the 1980s, an anthropologist by the name of Iegor Reznikoff, observed some of the oldest human artwork- cave paintings and carvings in France- and discovered that the places with the greatest resonance also contained the greatest concentration of artwork, implying that the ancients connected art and sound, and even created art to coincide with acoustics.

From a biblical perspective, none of this should come as a surprise. According to the Bible, man was building structures and creating art from the very beginning. We have record of Cain (the son of Adam and Eve) building a city (Genesis 4:17), and one of his descendents was Jubal, the father of all who play the harp and flute (Genesis 4:21). So art has always been important to man, and it has expanded since the beginning. We obviously don’t have the ability to go back in time and observe these ancient people as they went about their days, but we do have recorded history and modern archaeology that give us clues as to what people were like long ago, and we can see that we are just as human as they were.

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