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Home Science Ancient Cave Artists May Have Knowingly Deprived Themselves of Oxygen to Paint

Ancient Cave Artists May Have Knowingly Deprived Themselves of Oxygen to Paint

Some of the oldest human artwork in Europe is totally hidden from sight, tucked away within the slim crawl areas of deep, darkish, and winding caves.

To even see the partitions, not to mention beautify them, stone age artists would have wanted to crawl round with a number of torches, and archaeologists now suspect all that smoke induced an altered state of consciousness. 


Hallucinatory crops have been linked to the otherworldly nature of cave artwork earlier than, however this new speculation suggests historic people had been consciously chasing an analogous transformative expertise within the depths of the underworld, lengthy earlier than they started utilizing different psychoactive substances.

The farther from contemporary air they crawled, specialists suggest, the larger the psychological journey, and the extra inventive they turned.

“A few years ago, as I was visiting some decorated caves in France, I started to notice that most images are found deep in very narrow caves,” archaeologist Yafit Kedar from Tel-Aviv University in Israel informed The Jerusalem Post.  

“I began to wonder why they chose to work this way, as opposed to paint at the entrance of wider caves, where they could have also enjoyed some natural light.”

Modelling the impact of torches and lamps on a cave’s airflow, Kedar and her colleagues have discovered the narrower the doorway to a cavern, the quicker a human shall be starved of oxygen. 

In a deep cavern with only a single entrance, simulations present oxygen ranges can drop beneath 18 % in a mere fifteen minutes, probably inducing a state of hypoxia if concentrations dip low sufficient.


In people, oxygen deprivation can naturally launch dopamine within the mind, generally leading to drowsiness, euphoria, hallucinations or out-of-body experiences. In reality, scientists who research caves have reported experiencing comparable results even with out a burning torch in hand. 

The added use of hearth makes such a state way more seemingly. 

In a big cave mouth with open entry to the outer world, a burning flame tends to create two distinct layers of air: the decrease layer consists of air from the surface, and the higher layer consists of exhaust fuel flowing again out.

rtam a 1903177 f0001 ocAir movement in an open cave. (Kedar et al., The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture, 2021)

When hearth burns in a slim passage, however, each the higher and decrease layers partially combine, which means air in all places carries considerably much less oxygen than the 21 % we normally breathe.

What’s extra, as a result of oxygen atoms are lighter than carbon dioxide, they have an inclination to float upwards, descending out of a cave’s tunnels to the doorway. The deeper right into a cave system somebody travels with a burning flame, the extra seemingly they’re to starve themselves of oxygen.


In varied simulations, when air flow was significantly restricted, researchers discovered oxygen ranges can fall as little as 9 %, which is across the level the place an individual can lose consciousness. 

This would possibly sound like a serious deterrent, and but tons of of historic cave work from the Upper Paleolithic, between 14,000 and 40,000 years in the past, are situated at very comparable depths. In reality, some cave artwork has been discovered as removed from a cave’s mouth as an artist may feasibly get.

In France’s Rouffignac cave, for examples, most historic pictures have been painted on the partitions of extraordinarily slim passages, 730 meters (roughly 2,400 ft) from the one entrance.

rtam a 1903177 f0002 ocMap of Rouffignac cave with crimson dots representing cave artwork. (Dachary, Plassard, and Valladas, 2016)

It due to this fact appears attainable that some historic people had been crawling deep inside Europe’s darkish caves to purposefully enter an altered state of consciousness. The results of sensory deprivation, mixed with the shortage of oxygen, would possibly even have been the very set off for the surreal nature of their cave artwork.

“The images envisioned in such a hallucinatory state appear to float on the cave surfaces (walls, floors, and ceilings) as if these constituted a membrane connecting the upper and lower worlds,” the authors clarify. Kedar now hopes to take a look at oxygen ranges in precise caves to examine with the simulations.


While psychoactive crops are undoubtedly obtainable in Europe, proof for his or her use reveals up a lot later within the archaeological report than these cave work.

Hypoxia would possibly due to this fact have been a better and extra pure approach for early people to knowingly alter their state of thoughts, making an individual really feel extra linked to the world round them and extra expressive of their work.

The Lascaux caves in France – residence to some of probably the most well-known work of the Upper Paleolithic – have even been discovered to leach pure gases, which could have induced an analogous hallucinatory state in historic people.

“The cave environment was conceived as both a liminal space and an ontological arena, allowing early humans to maintain their connectedness with the cosmos,” the authors suggest.

“It was not the decoration that rendered the caves significant; rather, the significance of the chosen caves was the reason for their decoration.”

The research was printed in The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture.


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