Old cave painters sometimes created detailed images in dark, narrow passages that could only be navigated with artificial light. Hardly optimal conditions for an artist. So why would Picassos from the Late Stone Age even try to draw such illuminated, hard-to-reach areas? Because they knew the environments would deprive them of oxygen and get them high, according to a new study.
They were “motivated by an understanding of the transforming nature of an underground oxygen ̵
In many indigenous societies, active connection with the cosmos and the environment is considered the key to individual and shared well-being and adaptation. “It was not the decoration that made the caves stand out,” the study says. “Rather, the significance of the selected caves was the reason for their decoration.”
When the body’s obligatory blood oxygen concentration drops below a certain level, hypoxia follows. It is a potentially life-threatening condition that can cause a number of biological and cognitive changes, including increased dopamine, hallucinations, and euphoria. The researchers believe that artists from between 14,000 and 40,000 years ago illuminated themselves through the inner depths of the caves with flickering torches, knowing that the fire would reduce the oxygen levels in the already poorly ventilated spaces. Some art was found in areas that involved climbing steps, crossing narrow ledges and even shafts that fell several meters deep.
Researchers studied decorated caves first discovered in Western Europe in the 19th century to further interpret the enduring mysteries of cave art and explore what motivated these very early artists. Many of the images were painted in black and red or engraved on soft walls or hard surfaces. They depict mostly animals, but also hand stencils, handprints and abstract geometric signs.
Not all cave art appears in deep, dark depressions – some decorate walls near entrances or shelters. But it was the art of remote cave areas that was not used for daily domestic activities that the most fascinated researchers like Yafit Kedar, a Ph.D. graduate of the Archaeological Department of Tel Aviv University.
It is she who theorized the artists deliberately induced hypoxia to achieve an altered state of consciousness.
To investigate her hypothesis, Kedar and her co-researchers simulated the effect of torches on oxygen concentrations in enclosed spaces such as those in the Upper Paleolithic caves. They found that oxygen levels in narrow passages or halls with a single passage quickly dropped to below 18%, the level known to induce hypoxia in humans.
It has been a great year for cave art, which has a lot to tell us about how our ancestors lived and thought. Earlier this year, researchers identified a picture of a pig from 45,500 years ago that they believe is both the world’s oldest cave painting and the earliest known surviving depiction of the animal world.
The last many years have brought other intriguing discoveries of ancient drawings but non-figurative, including one found in South Africa 73,000 years ago that resembles a hashtag and another from between 2100 and 4100 BC that may show human wonder over a star explosion.