Ancient cave artists starved themselves of oxygen while painting

Ancient cave decorations can be stunning, but new research suggests that artists may have run out of oxygen while painting.

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

The study focuses on decorated caves in Europe, mainly Spain and France, and provides an explanation of why cave painters would decorate areas deep in cave systems.

“It appears that people in the Paleolithic Age rarely used the interior of deep caves for daily domestic activities. Such activities were mainly conducted in open-air locations, in rock shelters or at cave entrances,” the study says.

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

Ran Barkai, co-author and professor of prehistoric archeology, told CNN that using fire to illuminate the caves would have decreased oxygen levels and resulted in a state of hypoxia that releases dopamine and can lead to hallucinations and out-of-body experiences.

Bison in the Covaciella Cave in Spain.

Bison in the Covaciella Cave in Spain. Recognition: Image Professionals GmbH / Alamy Photo in stock

Painting in these conditions was a conscious choice that should help them interact with the cosmos, added Barkai.

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

Cave painters viewed the rock face as a membrane connecting their world to the underworld, which they believed was a place of plenty, Barkai explained.

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

The researchers argued that caves played an important role in Paleolithic belief systems and that the paintings were part of that relationship.

“It was not the decoration that made the caves meaningful, but the opposite: the importance of the selected caves was the reason for their decoration,” says the study.

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

Further research will investigate why children were brought into these deep cave areas and see if humans were able to develop resistance to low oxygen levels, Barkai said.

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

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