Ancient cave artists starved themselves of oxygen while painting

Ancient cave decorations can be breathtaking, but new research claims that artists starved for oxygen while painting.

Analyzing cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic period, from about 40,000 to 14,000 years ago, researchers at Tel Aviv University found that many were located in halls or narrow passages deep in cave systems navigable only by artificial light.

The study focuses on decorated caves in Europe, mainly in Spain and France, and explains why cave painters would choose to decorate areas deep in cave systems.

“It seems that people from the Upper Paleolithic barely used the interior of deep caves for everyday domestic activities. Such activities were mostly performed in open places, rocky areas or cave entrances,” the study states.

“Although the views were not made only in the deep and dark parts of the caves, the images in such locations are a very impressive aspect of the cave views and are therefore the focus of this study.”

Using fire to light caves would lower oxygen levels and lead to a state of hypoxia, which releases dopamine and can lead to hallucinations and experiences outside the body, Ran Barkai, co-author and professor of prehistoric archeology, told CNN.

Bison shown in Covaciella Cave, Spain. Credit: Image Professionals GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo

Painting under these conditions was a conscious choice designed to help them interact with the cosmos, Barkai added.

“It was used to connect with things,” Barkai added. “We don’t call it cave art. It’s not a museum.”

Cave painters thought of the stone surface as a membrane connecting their world to the underworld, which they believed was a place of abundance, Barkai explained.

Cave paintings depict animals such as mammoths, bison and ibex, and experts have long debated their purpose.

Researchers have argued that caves played an important role in Upper Paleolithic belief systems and that images are part of that relationship.

“The cave was not significant because of the decoration, but quite the opposite: the significance of the selected caves was the reason for their decoration,” the study states.

Barkai also suggested that the cave paintings could be used as part of a kind of initiation rite, given that children were present.

Further research will investigate why children were taken to these deep cave areas, as well as whether people were able to build resistance to low oxygen levels, Barkai said.

The article was published last week in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archeology, Consciousness and Culture.