Prehistoric cave painters may have been inspired by hallucinations

Caves were like deadly Dutch ovens of divine inspiration.

Israeli scientists may have finally discovered the source of ancient cave painters’ creativity — hallucinations caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain.

“We showed that hypoxia … might indeed be a plausible trigger for the creation of cave depictions,” wrote authors of the trippy study, which was published in the journal Time & Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture.

They postulated that these cavern-daubing da Vincis purposefully induced hypoxia — a lack of oxygen to the brain — by seeking out confined subterranean spaces in which to paint, the Daily Mail reported. In turn, this deliberate oxygen deprivation got the creative juices flowing.

To prove that ancient peoples were inspired by air scarcity, researchers ran computer simulations of oxygen levels in caves where art was produced, in what is now France and Spain between 14,000 and 40,000 years ago. These Paleolithic paintings, which include the oldest recorded Western cave work, known as the Cave of el Castillo in Spain, depict animals including mammoths, bison and horses.

A possibly hypoxia-inspired bison painting in Altamira caves, Upper Paleolithic museum, Santander, Cantabria, Spain.
A possibly hypoxia-inspired bison painting in the Cave of Altamira, in Cantabria, Spain
Universal Images Group via Getty

The models showed that these prehistoric Picassos mostly worked their magic in narrow tunnels approximately 660 feet from the entrance. They would’ve experienced hypoxia within 15 minutes, with severe oxygen deprivation possibly occurring in just two hours. This process might have been accelerated by the fact that the cave painters would’ve had to use torches to see in such a dark space, which further limit oxygen supply, the Independent reported.

Nonetheless “entering these deep, dark environments was a conscious choice, motivated by an understanding of the transformative nature of an underground, oxygen-depleted space,” according to study authors.

Indeed, while potentially fatal, oxygen starvation has also been shown to induce hallucinations, euphoria and even out-of-body sensations such as flying. In their underground art salons, cave painters may have thought the walls were floating, leading them to believe they were in the presence of a divine being.

“The idea is they went in [to the bowels of caves] because they believed something was there, that there were entities beyond the wall,” study author Yafit Kedar told Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The cramped caverns could induce hypoxia in as little as 18 minutes.
The cramped caverns could induce hypoxia in as little as 18 minutes.
De Agostini via Getty Images

No word as to whether this hypoxic hotboxing also led to “cave sex,” a heightened experience a la autoerotic asphyxiation.

The research marks the first time cave painters’ creativity has been attributed to hypoxic hallucinations. Prior studies posited that ancient people may have been disoriented by the labyrinthine caverns and drew brilliant wall portraits as a result, the Times reported.

Inspiration notwithstanding, prehistoric spelunkers were likely more creative than they’re given credit for.

Case in point: this recently discovered 44,000-year-old art in Indonesia, which could be the world’s oldest cave work.

The fact that some of the human figures sport bird-like beaks and tails — much like the hybrid creatures of Greek mythology — demonstrates an incredible knack for abstract thinking, researchers say.

Decorated Caves of the Vezere Valley (UNESCO World Heritage List, 1979). Lascaux Cave, upper Paleolithic cave painting.
Decorated Caves of the Vézère Valley in France, from the Upper Paleolithic period
De Agostini via Getty Images

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