When it comes to art gallery, the cave is an unusual choice of place. Many ancient cave paintings, which mark the first known examples of hominid artwork, are so deep underground that an extraordinary effort would be required to look at them. So, if you’re an ancient artist, what could inspire you to paint life scenes – things like horses, kangaroos and warthogs in the case of the oldest known cave painting – that few people, if any, would ever see?
It turns out that Israeli archaeologists may have come up with an answer. In short, the artists stumbled – literally.
According to a new paper in the journal “Time and Mind: A Journal of Archeology, Consciousness and Culture” by Tel Aviv University archaeologists, people who ventured into these underground enclosures during the Upper Paleolithic (50,000 to 12,000 years ago) would have to light torches to see what they were doing. In the process, they would reduce the amount of oxygen in the caves, causing hypoxia (deprivation of oxygen) in their brains. This, in turn, would bring them into a state of altered consciousness, experiencing euphoria, out-of-body experiences, and perhaps even hallucinations.
Our ancestors would not understand the science behind all this. Therefore, Israeli researchers assume that they would probably understand their experience as metaphysical in nature. Indeed, there are many people today who believe they have had spiritual experiences when they take mind-altering substances or enter a “trippy” environment, even with the scientific knowledge we currently have about why our brains react in certain ways.
Researchers speculate that the people responsible for these drawings might believe that there is something special in the caves themselves.
“We discuss the importance of caves in indigenous worldviews and argue that entering these deep, dark environments was a conscious choice, motivated by an understanding of the transformative nature of the underground, oxygen-depleted space,” the authors write. People who used them would look at caves as sacred spaces, locations that deserve awe and respect.
“The caves were not significant because of the decorations,” the authors write. “Instead, the significance of the selected caves was the reason for their decoration.”
In a separate article, the authors wrote that “the rock itself, inside a cave or shelter, is conceived as a membrane, the tissue that connects the world here and now and the underworld,” according to the Israeli publication Haaretz.
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Gil Kedar, one of the paper’s co-authors, told Haaretz that it first occurred to her that cave painters might have been tall because she visited rock-art sites in Europe and constantly thought about how hard it was to get to them.
“I wondered why they got into the dark, into such seclusion – why go all the way a mile inside?” Cedar asked. “These caves are terrifying, with narrow passages, and I’m still banging my head.”
It is important to note that the new work hypothesis does not take into account cave art in which the act of lighting a torch would not cause hypoxia. Also, this is not the first time that scientists have assumed that ancient cave painters may have less than sober.
That said, the only potential evidence for this before the new work – which tested its theories using data on the effects of hypoxia in high-altitude environments and software that simulated conditions in small Paleolithic caves – came from California. In November, an international research team discovered that chewed bundles of datura, a plant that acts as a delirium, were found stuck in the ceiling crevices of a site known as the Gear Cave. These drawings would probably have been made by an Indian group known as Chumash.