Some artists from early caves may have stumbled upon oxygen deprivation

The dazzling art found deep in the caves can be thanked to our ancestors who were exhausted due to lack of oxygen, some archaeologists have suggested. Evidence is elusive without a time machine, but modeling oxygen concentrations in these spaces provides support.

For tens of thousands of years, people have painted the walls of caves, sometimes beautifully. In the process, they left a legacy that helped us understand Paleolithic ecosystems – but it also left us with many more questions than answers. One question is why so much artwork is painted in deep halls that it would have been very difficult – and perhaps dangerous – for our ancestors to enter when there was a perfectly good wall closer to the surface.

Tel Aviv University graduate Yafit Kedar proposed a new explanation: artists had to go deep to inflate.

Sunlight never gets to where Cedar is thinking, so the artists certainly brought torches. With a small flow of air through the narrow openings, the fire would consume a lot of oxygen. “Hypoxia increases the release of dopamine in the brain, resulting in hallucinations and out-of-body experiences,” Kedar and co-authors note in Time and Mind.

Mind-altering drugs have contributed to most of the art we love today, even when faced with legal restrictions. Fungi and mescaline containing psilocybin for religious purposes have survived to modern times, but there is no evidence of their use in Paleolithic Europe. Would the first artists to leave a lasting impression cause similar effects with a lack of oxygen?

Artists may not have understood why poorly ventilated spaces affected them as they did, but the authors write, “We … argue that entering these deep, dark environments was a conscious choice, motivated by an understanding of the transformative nature of the underworld, an oxygen-depleted space. . “

“Entering the cave as it penetrates the earth could be conceived as a journey into the underworld, a powerful and supernatural place, which is also considered the birthplace of everything, a locality that provides the world with basic things for existence and prosperity,” they added. the rock inside the cave or rock is conceived as a membrane, a tissue that connects the world of the present and the underworld.

Cave art is widespread throughout the world and inevitably varies greatly by region. In some places, most remained in spaces too open for Cedar’s theory to be applied.

However, the paper notes that among about 400 decorated caves in Western Europe, the areas near the entrances where most of the life took place are usually unpainted. Meanwhile, Cave Rouffignac, France has an abundance of artwork at 730 meters (2,400 feet) from the entrance.

Cedar simulated conditions in these caves based on available ventilation and light requirements. Oxygen levels usually drop below 18 percent – the levels that the human brain first affects – within 15 minutes. More extreme effects occur at about 14.5 percent oxygen concentration. How much oxygen level it will reach depends largely on the height of the inlet; with a passage of one meter, concentrations could be up to 11 percent, the authors conclude.

Some of these caves, including the famous Lascaux, also have naturally produced gases that could have added effect.

For anyone who thinks this sounds like a cool thing to replicate, keep in mind that symptoms of mild oxygen deficiency include poor judgment and, according to the paper, “loss of self-criticism”. It is very easy for those who are in this state not to know when to stop, which leads to deaths. This is one of the main reasons why mountaineering locations like the slopes of Everest are sprinkled with bodies, revealing how the snow is melting.

H / T