Listen to the story.
REZNIKOFF: My specialty is ancient art and music.
And he practices the ancient art of chanting. This is Reznikoff chanting in the French abbey of Fontenay. For decades he's traveled to churches and sacred spaces like this one to sing and to teach. He's developed a rather keen ear. He listens to how a space responds to his singing.
REZNIKOFF: I'm interested in vibrations, in the resonance of churches.
And not just churches.
About 20 years ago, a friend invited him to visit a French cave. Reznikoff walked through the vast subterranean chambers and crawled through narrow tunnels. He hummed softly and sometimes - the cave responded.
REZNIKOFF: I started to make some sounds just hmm hmm or oh ohhh. And suddenly the whole tunnel answers -OHH OHHHH like a very big roar of a prehistorical lion.
He traveled to more caves and made more sounds. And he noticed that the parts of the caves that returned the loudest echoes - the chambers that resonated the most - tended to be adorned with paintings. And he devised a theory: That our ancestors used these sections of the caves as paleolithic cathedrals - decorated with paint and accompanied, he believes, by singing.
REZNIKOFF: And this is probably the best evidence for the practice of rituals in the caves related with the paintings.
But Reznikoff's theory is just that - a theory based on his personal observations. And he has skeptics.
LUBMAN: It should not be surprising if a musician studies caves that he finds musical origins.
David Lubman is an acoustical consultant from Southern California. Though skeptical, he's intrigued by Reznikoff's theory. So when Lubman came to Paris last month for a scientific meeting on acoustics, he contacted Reznikoff and asked for a demonstration. Reznikoff eagerly agreed and arranged to tour a cave in Burgundy, now owned by the Count of Varonde.
REZNIKOFF: Le conte de la Varonde.
Yes. Him. Early one afternoon, Reznikoff and Lubman stood at the mouth of the cave. Inside are some of the oldest cave paintings in the world - 25 to 30,000 years old.
Within moments of entering the cave, the air grew cool and fresh. Stalactites dripped with moisture. Reznikoff and Lubman walked through dark passageways illuminated by occasional light bulbs. A half hour later, they arrived at a tunnel that led to a chamber called the sanctuary.
Reznikoff set aside his cane and proceeded to climb and crawl - steadily, gingerly - into a smaller tunnel 10 feet above the ground.
REZNIKOFF: But you listen; just listen.
He started making soft, breathy sounds.
And the larger tunnel filled with Reznikoff's voice - amplified by the cave. When he descended, he explained what he'd been doing.
REZNIKOFF: I made very small sounds; I just made hmm hmm hmm hmm. And you heard, it was ï¿½
LUBMAN: Oh yes, it was very impressive.
And along the tunnel opposite the alcove that Reznikoff had just occupied was a painting of a mammoth.
They traveled deeper into the cave until they could go no farther. They stood at one end of a long, flattened gallery. Paintings of animals danced across one wall.
REZNIKOFF: The sound increases here.
It seemed that the areas with cave paintings were ideally suited to singing. But does that mean these spaces were actually used for singing? David Lubman proposed an alternate theory. The ancient artists, he said, may have looked for smooth surfaces for their paintingsï¿½ and these surfaces may, coincidentally, make for more resonant spaces.
LUBMAN: You also have an impressive continuous gallery of an almost smooth surface suitable for painting, so even if there was no resonance here, that would be a great place ï¿½
REZNIKOFF: No, no, no. You have many places - it's a good place and you don't have pictures.
But not all of the resonant places had paintings such as this part of the cave. It's possible that paintings once existed here but were subsequently destroyed. It's also possible that there were never paintings here. Still, Iegor Reznikoff maintains that after visiting a number of caves, his observation linking paintings to resonant spaces holds true.
After emerging from the cave, David Lubman remained skeptical, but the visit did capture his imagination.
LUBMAN: There's no doubt in my mind that the inhabitants of this cave - were impressed with the acoustics that they knew that they were in a special place.
And Lubman expressed admiration for Reznikoff's work. He says it's part of a larger effort to develop an archaeology of the senses - what our ancestors saw, smelled, heard.
LUBMAN: How can we understand a disappeared civilization without trying to understand their senses?
As for Reznikoff, he describes the resonance of these caves as something sacred. He makes noises into the darkness. And the darkness answers back.
For The World, I'm Ari Daniel Shapiro, Arcy-sur-Cure, France.