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Stoned Age

Israeli study: Prehistoric cave painters may have been hallucinating

Paper published in Time and Mind journal claims cavemen entered hallucinogenic states due to lack of oxygen in potential effort to ‘maintain their connectedness with the cosmos’

Replica of a horse painting from a cave in Lascaux (CC via Wikipedia)
Replica of a horse painting from a cave in Lascaux (CC via Wikipedia)

Starved of oxygen deep in the caves of prehistoric Europe, early humans may have been getting high and entering hallucinogenic states to create their timeless art, Israeli researchers claim in a newly released study.

According to a paper published in the Time and Mind archeological journal by Tel Aviv University’s Yafit Kedar and Ran Barkai, prehistoric cave dwellers, who often chose only deep and hard-to-access caves to paint, would have been starved of oxygen due to the torches they lit to be able to see. This, they say, would have led to a state known as hypoxia, where dopamine is released in the brain, “resulting in hallucinations and out-of-body experiences.”

By simulating “the effect of torches on oxygen concentrations in structures similar to Paleolithic decorated caves” the researchers found that the levels of breathable oxygen were at those known to induce hypoxia.

Building on that research, Kedar and Barkai claim that entering the caves to paint may have been seen as a spiritual act.

They contend that due to the “the significance of caves in indigenous world views… entering these deep, dark environments was a conscious choice, motivated by an understanding of the transformative nature of an underground, oxygen-depleted space.”

They claim that in the act of entering the deep caves to paint, early humans created an “ontological arena” that allowed them to “maintain their connectedness with the cosmos.”

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

Speaking to Haaretz about the research, Kedar said that the cavemen may have been trying to communicate with other-worldly beings.

“The idea is they went in [to the bowels of caves] because they believed something was there, that there were entities beyond the wall,” she said.

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