Ancient cave painters sometimes created complex paintings in dark narrow passages navigable only by artificial light. Hardly optimal conditions for the artist. So why would a younger Stone Age Picasso even try to draw in such dimly lit, hard-to-reach spaces? Because they knew that the environment would deprive them of oxygen and increase them, according to a new study.
They were “motivated by an understanding of the transformative nature of an oxygen-depleted underground space,” archaeologists at Tel Aviv University said in a study that appears in the latest issue of Time and Mind: The Journal of Archeology, Consciousness and Culture. The lack of oxygen helped them use their deepest, most visceral levels of creativity and connect with the cosmos, the research suggests.
In many indigenous societies, active connection with the cosmos and the environment is considered key to individual and communal well-being and adaptation. “The cave was not significant because of the decoration,” the study says. “Instead, the significance of the selected caves was the reason for their decoration.”
When the obligatory concentration of oxygen in the blood in the body falls 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. Researchers believe that artists from 14,000 to 40,000 years ago lit through the interior of caves with flickering torches, knowing that fire would reduce the level of oxygen in already poorly ventilated spaces. Some art was found in areas that included climbing stairs, crossing narrow ledges, and even shafts that descended several feet deep.
Researchers studied the 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 paintings are painted in black and red or engraved on soft walls or hard surfaces. They mainly depict animals, but also hand patterns, handprints and abstract geometric signs.
Not all cave art appears in deep, dark recesses – some adorn walls near entrances or shelters. But it is precisely art in remote cave areas that are not used for everyday domestic activities that has most intrigued researchers like Dr. Yafita Kedara. candidate in the Department of Archeology at Tel Aviv University.
She is the one who theorized artists to intentionally induce hypoxia to achieve an altered state of consciousness.
To investigate their hypothesis, Cedar and her fellow scientists 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 aisles or single-aisle halls rapidly dropped to below 18%, a level known to cause hypoxia in humans.
It was a good year for cave art, which has a lot to tell us about how our ancestors lived and thought. Earlier this year, researchers identified an image of a warthog from 45,500 years ago that they believe is both the world’s oldest cave image and the earliest known surviving depiction of the animal world.
The past few years have brought other exciting discoveries of ancient drawings, albeit non-figurative ones, including one found in South Africa 73,000 years ago resembling a hashtag and another between 2100 and 4100 BC that could show a human miracle due to a star explosion.