Many prehistoric paintings have been discovered in caves with scant oxygen.

This article was first published on Big Think in April 2021. It was updated in November 2022.

Artists of all types have been known to ingest a — shall we say — creative lubricant or two. One of the paradoxical things about art, even for people who love making it — maybe especially for those people — is that it’s sometimes hard to get started, despite the fact that it’s even harder to stop.

A new paper suggests this problem and solution go way back.

As archaeologist Yafit Kedar from Tel-Aviv University in Israel was in France enjoying some cave art deep within the ground, she started to wonder why their creators would choose to create images so far away from natural light sources. These places are also airless, where what little oxygen there could have been would have been consumed by the burning torches the painters needed in order to see what they were painting.

Maybe, she thought, the reason these long-ago artists chose to create in such remote chambers was because of their lack of fresh oxygen. Perhaps the painters would have been down there creating in a hypoxic, trancelike state. In that pre-agricultural, pre-chemistry time, cave painting might have been a way to get inspirationally baked.

There are some 400 known prehistoric cave paintings found in Western Europe dating back to the Upper Paleolithic period from 40,000 to 11,00 years ago.

The Greek oracles were probably high, too

Credit: matiasdelcarmine / Adobe Stock

This might not be the only historical example of people inducing an oxygen-starved state to achieve transcendence or something like it. A 2006 study from scientists at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Rome hypothesized that hypoxia might have been the source of the trances out of which Delphic oracles extracted their visions.

Plutarch had written that trances began when the oracle—really generations of female oracles, all of them ceremonially named “Pythia” — inhaled sweet noxious fumes from cracks in the ground beneath the temple. Lead author of the 2006 study Giuseppe Etiope suggested that these gasses may well have been nothing more miraculous than carbon dioxide and methane filling a poorly ventilated space, thus casting Pythia off into a netherworld of semi-consciousness.

The air down there

Credit: Aleksandr Volunkov / Adobe Stock

On the surface, the air we breathe is 21 percent oxygen. Kedar and her colleagues created computer models that revealed the likely levels of oxygen in the painted caves. They found that in some such caverns, oxygen levels can drop to 18 percent in just 15 minutes. Some models fell to 11 percent. Hypoxia is likely at oxygen levels below 14.5% percent.

Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

Fire torches exacerbate the problem. Up near the surface in a cave open to outside air, a burning fire’s exhaust flows up and out while fresh air comes in beneath it. In a narrow passageway, however, the carbon dioxide and oxygen mix, and the lighter oxygen floats upward and on out of the cavern toward the surface.

The deeper a painter went with their torch, the more extreme was the loss of oxygen. Some of Kedar’s models of deep caverns found just 9 percent oxygen, the lower limit of survivability.

Kedar hopes to validate the modeled outcomes by measuring oxygen levels in existing painted caves. For now though, the models point to the “transformative nature of an underground, oxygen-depleted space.”

What is a hypoxic high like?

Hypoxia releases dopamine and can produce euphoria, visions, and out-of-body sensations. Modern visitors have reported experiencing some of these same sorts of mental phenomena when viewing the artwork.

The paper suggests that, “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 hypoxic mind may well have found it easy to imagine that they were seeing beyond the rock, and indeed, beyond their world.

“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,” write the authors.

Considering the likelihood of hypoxic conditions inside caves, it may be that it was the promise of a transcendent experience that drove the painters deep into the ground rather than any inherent meaning attached to the caves. As the paper concludes:

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

Related Posts

Archaeological Find: Unearthed Roman Swords Dating Back to 190 AD in Israel

Ancient swords, believed by the Israel Antiquities Authority to be from the Roman era dating back 1,900 years and found in a weapons cache in a cave in an Israeli desert, are displayed in Jerusalem, September 6, 2023. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun Jewish reƄels …

Ancient Corpse Discovered in Chile’s Atacama Desert Dating Back to 5020 BC

Th𝚎 R𝚎m𝚊𝚛k𝚊𝚋l𝚎 P𝚛𝚎s𝚎𝚛v𝚊ti𝚘n 𝚘𝚏 𝚊 5020 BC C𝚘𝚛𝚙s𝚎 in Chil𝚎’s At𝚊c𝚊m𝚊 D𝚎s𝚎𝚛t In th𝚎 𝚊𝚛i𝚍 𝚎x𝚙𝚊ns𝚎 𝚘𝚏 Chil𝚎’s At𝚊c𝚊m𝚊 D𝚎s𝚎𝚛t, wh𝚎𝚛𝚎 𝚛𝚊in𝚏𝚊ll is 𝚊 𝚛𝚊𝚛it𝚢 𝚊n𝚍 th𝚎 l𝚊n𝚍sc𝚊𝚙𝚎 st𝚛𝚎tch𝚎s 𝚘𝚞t in s𝚎𝚎min𝚐l𝚢 𝚎n𝚍l𝚎ss 𝚍𝚛𝚢n𝚎ss, li𝚎s 𝚊 𝚍isc𝚘v𝚎𝚛𝚢 th𝚊t h𝚊s 𝚊st𝚘𝚞n𝚍𝚎𝚍 𝚊𝚛ch𝚊𝚎𝚘l𝚘𝚐ists …

Unveiling the Enigma: Archaeological Expedition Reveals Two-Headed Giant Mummy

The ѕtory of Kаp Dwа, whіch lіterally meапs “two-headed,” аppeаrs іп Brіtіsh reсords іп the eаrly 20th сeпtυry Coυпtleѕѕ рeoрle hаve сlaimed to eпсoυпter gіaпts throυghoυt hіstory. Greek tіtaпs, vаrioυs Norѕe gіaпts, the Chіпese gіaпt Pапgυ, апd the Bіblіcal …

The 6,600-year-old Ekaterinovskia Mys grave 45 of a young man

The 6,600-year-old Ekaterinovskia Mys grave 45 of a young man, in the Volga Region of Russia, buried with a carved elk antler in the shape of a…

Archaeologists Uncover Ancient ‘Hybrid’ Creature – a Remarkable Blend of Crocodile and Bird Dating Back 230 Million Years

Αt the eпd of the Trіassіc рeriod, the lапd of whаt іs пow the ѕtate of Wyomіпg of the Uпіted Stаtes exіsted а ѕtraпge beаst wіth а рarrot-like beаk, а dіпosaυr body. It wаs паmed Beeѕiiwo сooowυse, а пew ѕpecieѕ. The Beаst Jυѕt Αррeared іп ΑmerіcaThe …

72-Million-Year-Old Dinosaur Tail Unearthed in Mexico, Unveiling Prehistoric Secrets!

A t𝚎𝚊m 𝚘𝚏 𝚊𝚛ch𝚊𝚎𝚘l𝚘𝚐ists h𝚊ʋ𝚎 𝚍isc𝚘ʋ𝚎𝚛𝚎𝚍 th𝚎 𝚏𝚘ssilis𝚎𝚍 𝚛𝚎m𝚊iпs 𝚘𝚏 𝚊 72 milli𝚘п-𝚢𝚎𝚊𝚛-𝚘l𝚍 𝚍iп𝚘s𝚊𝚞𝚛 t𝚊іl іп 𝚊 𝚍𝚎s𝚎𝚛t іп п𝚘𝚛th𝚎𝚛п M𝚎xіc𝚘, іt h𝚊ѕ 𝚋𝚎𝚎п 𝚊пп𝚘𝚞пc𝚎𝚍. Th𝚎 ‘𝚞п𝚞s𝚞𝚊ll𝚢 w𝚎ll-𝚙𝚛𝚎s𝚎𝚛ʋ𝚎𝚍’ 𝚏іʋ𝚎 𝚢𝚊𝚛𝚍-l𝚘п𝚐 t𝚊іl w𝚊ѕ th𝚎 𝚏і𝚛st 𝚎ʋ𝚎𝚛 𝚏𝚘𝚞п𝚍 іп M𝚎xіc𝚘, ѕ𝚊i𝚍 F𝚛𝚊пcisc𝚘 …

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *