Archaeoacoustics and Ancient Architecture: Megaliths, Music and the Mind
Before introducing the Big Question, let’s ponder a minute. Isn’t it amazing that for hundreds of thousands of years, all of humankind lived the same way everywhere on Earth. We were all indigenous then, living close to the land, mostly concerned with meeting the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, social responsibility, a peaceful relationship with the forces of nature and personal safety from disaster. We had developed languages and other ways to communicate with each other. We had mastered fire and we were clever.
As the species of Homo sapiens moved through time, we just got better and better with our stone tools and spear throwers and sewing needles. What an ingenious little idea that was! Fashion got its start with the first sewing needle. And to think that this cunning idea came to diverse people spread across time and distance. Could textiles be far behind? Anyway, that was more or less the way we were for an enormous expanse of time… until something changed.
Augmenting the Agricultural Revolution
Modern references still claim that it was the advent of agriculture that started the revolution leading to a settled lifestyle and paving the way for civilization to advance. This simplistic explanation falls somewhat short. When archaeologist Klaus Schmidt began excavating Göbekli Tepe in the mid-1990s, it became unarguable that the developments that sparked western civilization began with something else. Agriculture arose at different times in different parts of the world. Considered herein is the original scenario, the one that came to impact the future of western humanity and by extension, the planet.
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The roots of the first farmers lie at the eastern end of the Mediterranean in what has been called the Fertile Crescent. The ancestors of most of our domesticated cattle, goats, sheep, pigs all come from the same general area in southeastern Turkey sometime between 8,000 to 10,500 years ago. The genetic origins of cultivated grains like bread wheat and barley are in the same area.
Where archaeologists find ancient barley, they usually find evidence of beer-making, including at Göbekli Tepe. Indigenous people throughout the world have discovered and mastered techniques of fermentation. Humans being human, it is not a stretch to imagine that song and music-making went along with the consumption of fermented beverages.
The Origins of Universal Vocal Music
Music is considered a cultural universal. Every known society partakes in it. Most cultures have their own mythical origins concerning the invention of music, generally rooted in their respective mythological, religious, or philosophical beliefs. Bone flutes found inside caves and dated to 40,000 years ago attest to an early beginning.
Although Charles Darwin was sure we sang before we spoke, the question of whether song or language came first is a contentious issue for which we shouldn't expect to ever have a resolution. About a million years ago, the common ancestor of Neanderthals and modern humans had the vocal anatomy needed for singing, but we can’t know if they did. World class tenor Joseph Calleja explains that opera is all about expressing emotions that are so big, they just have to be sung. Anyone who has observed children in an echoed hallway knows that sometimes a place can simply compel one to vocalize.
Prehistory was a time when knowledge, memory and cultural identity were preserved in oral traditions – principally songs because the structure of a song keeps the story more or less intact every time it’s told. It won’t fit if it isn’t told correctly. As with indigenous folks everywhere, back in the day, a good evening was the whole community gathered around the fire to listen while somebody sang a good tale. It likely carried a message that was important. In fact, everything that was important to know was in a form that required listening. Survival depended on it. In the absence of industrial and vehicle noise, their hearing was likely far keener than ours.
Pre-Agricultural Seeds of Civilization
Agriculture did not rise from a group of late Stone Age folks just sitting together drinking beer one evening and deciding, “Hey listen - let's plant crops here because it will make life easier.” Quite a while before farming developed, they were up to something that became more important to them than hunting and gathering.
After the last Ice Age ended about 12,000 years ago, one of them did get an idea. Fully developed and successful foragers for hundreds of millennia, the nomad tribes of this area differentiated themselves from all the other indigenous folks of the time everywhere on Earth, by doing something unprecedented. What did they do? They constructed the world’s first megalithic monuments.
In one remarkable moment, humankind's first architect thought about actually planning and creating an original ritual and ceremonial space. What would that take? Tremendous organizational skills, for a start.
While the men were working on quarrying and shaping and moving and decorating huge blocks of stone, they were not hunting. Of course, it would have been necessary to figure out how to feed everyone. We can guess that remaining in the same area for the long stretches of time that construction needed would have facilitated the process of cultivation and domestication of what was living and growing nearby.
So, here is the Big Question: Why, after a nearly unfathomable expanse of time of a lifestyle that left little trace on the planet, did humankind begin building monuments of stone? Could it have anything to do with how great it made their music sound?
Were the stone monuments of Göbekli Tepe built to create an environment for experiencing sound? (Linda C. Eneix)
Finding Archaeoacoustic Foundations: Stone Monuments and Sound
The multi-disciplinary study of archaeoacoustics zeros in on the human experience of music or “special sound” in ancient ritual and ceremonial spaces. The OTS Foundation for Neolithic Studies conducted conferences on the subject in Malta, Turkey and Portugal, the proceedings of which offer a wealth of various approaches to the subject.
While examining the Paleolithic painted caves of France and Spain, music anthropologist Iegor Reznikoff quickly discerned that the areas where animals were portrayed correspond to the parts of the caves that have the strongest echoes. Scientists are not sure exactly when Homo sapiens developed the ability for abstract thinking, but here it is 40,000 years ago: the depiction of something that is not directly in the line of vision of the artist.
Reznikoff further suggests a possible relationship between ancient sanctuaries and oral traditions that are found elsewhere and much later in time:
“… we have the Sumerian or Egyptian inscriptions mentioning singing to the Invisible, particularly in relationship with death and Second Life.” (Reznikoff, I., 2014)
Why wouldn't sound also be part of the depiction? Surely the spirit of the beast was not silent in places like the caves of Lascaux. No. It could not fail to be noticed that the sound behavior inside the cave was very different from what it was outdoors where people spent most of their lives. How was it interpreted by the people of the time? Wouldn't we like to know! Hollywood gives us a hint. In the movies, the voice of God nearly always comes with an echo. It must be in the filmmaker's rulebook: if you want something other-worldly, put an echo on it.
This ability for abstract thinking was more important than we might at first think. It was a crucial part of the architectural visualization required for designing the monumental spaces that would come later in time. This may have something to do with the fact that the part of the brain that processes the arrangement of notes into melody also processes objects in three dimensions.
Contrary to popular belief, most of the people of the Stone Age did not actually live in caves full time. They were nomads who followed wild herds to keep their families fed and clothed. Shelter in a cave would have been a seasonal business and there was no telling what creatures would move in while the tribe was away. But it seems likely that some caves held special attraction as places of ritual, ceremony and the making of sacred music that would go with it.
Researchers have found that listening to music can release dopamine in the brain. (metamorworks / Adobe Stock)
The Neuroscience of Music
Neuroscience is revealing another factor. We all know that certain music can touch deep emotional places within us. Researchers at Harvard University and John's Hopkins Hospital have found that listening to music that gives a person chills releases dopamine in the brain. There are few better ways to produce a profound listening experience than to surround it with a spiritual communion in a context or environment that is out of the ordinary. Human beings really like dopamine! The pleasure and reward mechanism that it triggers is also associated with addiction.
More research is needed to examine whether changes in the brains of these precocious Anatolians would have meaning in regard to the Big Question, but clearly something set them ahead in the creativity department. Suppose it was an acoustic spiritual experience in a cave that inspired the first building?
An effort to create the "magic holy place" where they wanted it, instead of where it was found: make it and decorate it and have control of it. Tribes would come from far and wide once the word got out. Big seasonal celebrations, new courtships, beer and feasting, and a divine climax for the ultimate in drama. A climactic experience that actually changed the chemistry in the brain.
By 12,000 years ago our mental workings had become what they still are today. Any society that could think up sewing needles could observe their environment and notice the physical characteristics of a cave that produced a good echo. As it happens, there are thousands of those in the Taurus Mountains near the site of Göbekli Tepe.
Stone monuments at Göbekli Tepe in Anatolia, Turkey. (Linda C. Eneix)
The Art, Song and Archaeoacoustics of Göbekli Tepe
As opposed to the painted caves of the Paleolithic period, at Göbekli Tepe the beasts are carved in these incredible stone circles. Identified clearly as shrines, the structures are not practical for use as dwellings and were never meant to be lived in. The symmetry of design and the fact that they were not easy to build attest to that.
Despite the fact that they were deliberately buried and hidden quite some time later, the sanctuaries were built to last forever. The floors were smooth, the stone walls were plastered, and architectural features indicate that they were roofed when in use. The fine limestone carvings would not have survived exposure to rain and wind for very long. Under these circumstances, it is reasonable to assume that the spaces echoed just like a modern concrete underpass echoes. It is a simple matter of physics: vibration, hard surfaces and the composition thereof.
For the people of the time, entering one of the completed shrines must have been an extraordinary experience. This was no rough cave. It was something that had to have a new word to call it because there had never been any such thing before on the face of the Earth.
Göbekli Tepe did not fall out of space. The whole area is full of similar structures that are yet to be excavated. Some that are even a bit older than Göbekli Tepe demonstrate the learning process that went into the magnificent expression of spaces like Göbekli Tepe's "enclosure D" with its twin anthropomorphic columns still intact, as tall as three men, foot to shoulder. Dr. Schmidt noticed while excavating that one of these columns gave off a ringing sound when struck with the hand.
What happened on these rolling plains of Anatolia was no flash in the pan. Something very compelling was driving the tremendous commitments of time and labor that were spent here doing something revolutionary while the rest of the global population went about their lives as usual.
The builders appear to have quickly become aware that the curves and concave surfaces were part of the requirement for maximizing acoustic effect. This was knowledge that didn't disappear, as evidenced in the amphitheaters of the ancient Greeks and the colosseum arenas of the Romans.
A shrine at Göbekli Tepe in Anatolia, Turkey. (Linda C. Eneix)
Origins of the Ancient Archaeoacoustic Builders
“Now researchers believe they have pinpointed where the first farmers who spread into Europe 8,000 years ago came from - Anatolia in Turkey,” reported the Daily Mail in 2016. The BBC News then cited DNA studies in 2019 in reporting that the builders of Stonehenge were descended from populations originating in Anatolia.
Thanks to advancements in the science of genetics, it is now known that there were several waves of migration out of the part of the world that produced Göbekli Tepe's societies. Yes, the first farmers who settled in Europe and assimilated with the existing hunter-gatherer folks came from Anatolia, no longer the indigenous people they had been, but now the more advanced and sophisticated newcomers.
All signs point to a happy mixing, sharing any genetic changes in the brain, along with lactose tolerance in adults and blue eyes. Those migrations populated areas that would in historic time foster the movement of people to places like North America, South America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and plenty of places in between. So, maybe we are not such distant strangers anymore.
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Not only did the settlers bring their plants, livestock and agricultural lifestyle with them, but also their cultural traditions. Groups that followed the Danube seem to have built their monuments with wood, of which little has been preserved. The groups that left Anatolia via the Mediterranean carried the knowledge required for building with megaliths.
Although the constructions are frequently of a smaller scale, surviving stone monuments reach back from Ireland to England, France, Portugal, Spain, Sardinia and Malta - with its mother lode of megalithic buildings and the penultimate archaeoacoustic marvel of the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum, and to Greece and Cyprus.
Architecturally, the sites are a trail of wide symmetrical exterior facades that reach out like welcoming arms to forecourts and community gathering spaces; effective acoustic enhancement for performance or an address from a spiritual leader. Could ancient mounds with enclosed corridors have functioned as megalith resonators for the guiding of some sort of special activity outside?
Even the smaller closed “tombs” are equipped with perforated intercommunicating “window” stones that join the interior with the exterior courtyard space. It's a feature found in the great Maltese sites, and at Göbekli Tepe as well.
Reconstructed fresco from Çatalhöyük. (Author provided)
At the time of the migrations, the Neolithic settlement of Çatalhöyük was in full flower, not all that far from Göbekli Tepe. While no monuments have been found there yet, the site is an invaluable bridge in understanding the transition to a settled lifestyle. A fresco made by occupants of Çatalhöyük confirms a joyous interest in music and dance, underscoring an audio dimension to Neolithic life from the beginning. If one looks closely, certain artifacts from Göbekli Tepe itself also indicate sonic awareness.
Just 35 kilometers (22 mi) from Göbekli Tepe, and likely pre-dating it, is the recently discovered site of Karahantepe. Like Malta's Hal-Saflieni Hypogeum, one chamber was sculpted down into the limestone bedrock. In addition to columns cut in situ, there is an enigmatic head extended from the upper reaches of the curved wall. His mouth is open and his Adam's apple is high in his throat. If I were a Neolithic artist who was going to depict a messenger communicating from the other side, this would be it.
At Karahantepe there is an enigmatic head extended from the upper reaches of the curved wall. (Linda C. Eneix)
We get to the big "if" again. Sound doesn't leave an archaeological trail. How are we ever going to prove that people in prehistory were motivated by the kind of sound that gives one goose bumps, even if we can see that they went to fantastic effort to create environments that could easily produce it? We'll never prove it, but it certainly adds up.
Now, we understand that once they put these stone chambers together for ritual use, acoustic environments were created. We know that some sort of music or intentional sound has been part of the ritual of every society on record. We know that certain sound in these ancient spaces could have made chemical changes in the brains of the people who used them. So far, there has been no better explanation for the whole developmental sequence that began with the building of monuments of stone.
Top image: Archaeoacoustics attempts to understand the connection between megalithic stone monuments, music and the mind. Source: Linda C. Eneix
By Linda C. Eneix
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