Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Case for Low Frequency Sound Production by Palaeolithic Hunters as an Aid to Mammoth Hunting

Marnie Dunsmore
10 June 2014

African elephants produce low frequency rumbles for contact calling and bonding.  Interestingly, the contact calling rumbles are produced mostly below 200Hz.  It is postulated that elephants deliberately produce these ultra low frequency contact calls to increase the distance of their communication [1].

It should be noted that elephant calling rumbles, when observed with an acoustic spectrogram, appear to be not only low frequency, but also polyphonic [1].

Mammoths are closely related to African elephants and were approximately the same size with approximately the same trunk length [2].  Given the evolutionary advantage to being able to communicate over long distance, it is probable that mammoths retained contact calling along with elephants.  It is therefore likely that mammoths also produced low frequency calling rumbles somewhere in the range below 200Hz.

Recently, it has been proposed that the extinction of the mammoth was at least partly the result of human hunters [3], aided by their dogs or wolf-dogs [4].

Given evident aggressive hunting for megafauna by humans, and in particular, the hunting of mammoths to extinction [2], it is worthwhile to consider other technologies that humans might have used in the hunting of mammoths.  For instance, it has been noted that several instruments have a world wide distribution, including the bullroarer, the drum and many blown pipe instruments (flutes, pipes, didgeridoo, gaida) [5].  A small number of these musical instruments produce loud, low frequency sound below 200Hz, in the "rumble band" of elephants, including the bullroarer [6], the murgu or amyrga [7][8], and the gaida [9].  Certain large drums, including plank and log drums, also produce sound below 200Hz, but they are not easily transportable on the body of a person or are difficult to reassemble [5].

We cannot know if humans used portable, low frequency sound producers to confuse, terrify or mimic the mammoths.  However, there are many examples from very early times of humans mimicking birds for hunting purposes [5][6].  It would probably have been conceptually possible for early modern humans to transfer hunting concepts used for bird hunting to the more yield worthy task of mammoth hunting.

Ethnographic studies of musical instruments have noted the widespread use of the bullroarer by many hunter-gatherer societies including the Nenets in Siberia [5], Blackfoot and Sioux [10] and other groups in the Americas [11], and the Australian Aborigines [6].  In Europe, spectacularly, a bullroarer was excavated in 1930 at the Magdalenian site of La Roche de Birol, Lalinde, in the Dordogne [10].  A 5000-year-old slate bullroarer was found in northern Norway in 1991 [11].

Long flutes such as the Tuvan long amyrga also produce sound below 200Hz.  This instrument and shorter versions of it, were used in South Siberia to hunt Marals, a large deer [7].  The Tuva are also noted throat singers and often combine throat singing with musical instruments [8].  Some performances of their music retain the quality of mimicking animal sounds.  However, it should be noted that without the use of highly technical singing, the amyrga, like all simple flutes, cannot produce the polyphonic quality of an elephant rumble.  The sound power of flutes is also limited, especially at low frequency.

This is not the case with the multi-piped gaida/bagpipe, which produces a loud, low frequency drone below 200Hz on one pipe, while adding one or more additional playing pipes to allow the production of higher frequency variable tones above the drone [9].  It is a traditional instrument of Europe, Southwest Asia and North Africa.  The bag part of the gaida, traditionally made of animal hide, is perishable and would therefore not appear in archaeological sites.  It is possible that flutes now being found at Palaeolithic sites in Eurasia [10], especially if found in pairs or groups, and at mammoth sights, might have been used as gaidas in the aid of hunting.

In addition to being used for mammoth hunting, it is likely that the low frequency bullroarer, gaida and amyrga were used for long distance communication.  Elephants and large whales both take advantage of their ability to produce low frequency noise to communicate over long distances [1][14].  It is well documented that humans do this with drums [12] and it is highly probably that humans took advantage of these loud, low frequency instruments to communicate.  It is also probable that other megafauna, such as the bison and reindeer, were hunted using these instruments.  Given the ethnographic evidence, in addition to hunting and communication, these instruments became incorporated into sacred ceremonies and celebrations.  That being said, the retention of the bullroarer by many hunter-gatherer groups, especially in areas where the mammoth has gone extinct only in the last twelve thousand years [2][10][13], suggests that low frequency sound production was an important tool used by Palaeolithic hunters to terrify, confuse or control mammoths, and aid their demise.


[1Angela S. Stoeger, Gunner Heilmann, Matthias Zeppelzauer, André Ganswindt, Sean Hensman, and Benjamin D. Charlton, Visualizing Sound Emission of Elephat Vocalizations:  Evidence for Two Rumble Production Types.  PLOS One, November 14, 2012.  DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0048907

[2]  VI International Conference on Mammoths and Their Relatives, Grevena and Siatista, Western Macedonia, Greece, 5-12 May 2014.

[3] Christopher Sandom, Søren Faurby, Brody Sandel and Jens-Christian Svenning, Global late quaternary megafauna extinctions linked to humans, not climate change.  Proc. R. Soc. B 2014 281, 20133254, 4 Jun 2014.

[4]  Pat Shipman, How do you kill 86 mammoths? Taphonomic investigations of mammoth megasites.  Quaternary International, 19 May 2014.

[5]  Roger Blench, Using Ethnography to Reconstruct the Culture of Early Modern Humans.  December 2007.

[6]  Neville H. Fletcher, Australian Aboriginal Musical Instruments:  The Didjeridu, The Bullroarer and the Gumleaf.  Acoustics Australia, 2003

[7] Sevyan Vainshtein, Nomads of South Siberia, Cambridge University Press, 1980, pp. 172 and 173.

[8] Nachyn Choodu plays the amyrga, Millennium Stage, Kennedy Center, Washington, DC, 6 August 2009.

[9] Haris Sarris, Panagiotis Tzevelekos, "Singing like the gaida bagpipe": an ethnomusicological and acoustical approach.  In: K. Maimets-Volt, R. Parncutt, M. Marin & J. Ross (Eds.)  Proceedings of the third Conference on Interdisciplinary Musicology (CIM07), Tallinn, Estonia, 15-19 August 2007.

[10]  Anton Killin, Musicality in human evolution, archaeology and ethnography.  Biol Philos, 21 February 2014, DOI 10.1007/s10539-014-9438-y

[11] Wikipedia, Bullroarer page.

[12]  Marnie Dunsmore, Drums and Drumming Language Across West Africa, 25 June 2011.

[13]  Iain Morley, The prehistory of music: human evolution, archaeology, and the origins of musicality. Oxford University Press, 2013.

[14]  Secrets of Whales' Long Distance Songs are Being Unveiled, Science Daily, 2 March 2005.

Youtube and Other Video

Gaida (Bulgarian)
The Elephant Documentary

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