Breathtaking cave paintings may have been caused by a lack of oxygen

·2-min read
Israeli researchers suggest that Paleolithic artists may have been suffering from hallucinations caused by a lack of oxygen when they produced their cave paintings.

How should we explain strange motifs in prehistoric paintings on the walls of some of Europe's caves? A recent Israeli study has come up with a surprising theory: the Paleolithic artists responsible for these masterpieces were suffering from a lack of oxygen.

While some 20th-century artists like Pablo Picasso took opium in their quest for inspiration, their Paleolithic ancestors may have adopted a more natural but even more dangerous method to achieve altered states of consciousness: depriving themselves of oxygen. This novel hypothesis has recently been put forward by researchers from the University of Tel-Aviv in a study published in "Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture".

The researchers analyzed cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic period, which have mainly been found in Spain and France. Most of these were painted in particularly narrow caves and passages that the artists would have had to light with torches. However, these torches did not only provide light, they also consumed oxygen in the surrounding atmosphere to the point where those who were present may well have been suffering from hypoxia: a state of oxygen deprivation that can induce hallucinations and out-of-body experiences.

A deliberate choice

Even more surprisingly the study argues that Paleolithic artists were well aware of the effects of oxygen deprivation, which they deliberately cultivated in a bid to "maintain their connectedness with the cosmos". As the researchers put it, "We contend that entering these deep, dark environments was a conscious choice, motivated by an understanding of the transformative nature of an underground, oxygen-depleted space."

Although the prehistoric artists probably did not understand the medical effects of hypoxia, the researchers are wondering if some them did not become accustomed to coping with the low levels of oxygen in some of the caves they decorated.

Caroline Drzewinski