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Study suggests our ancestors had hallucinations when painting caves

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A group of Israeli scientists found in their new study a connection between the hallucinations of our ancestors and cave painting. They created their drawings in a state of consciousness altered by lack of air, they argue.

The natural concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere is 21%, the study authors note. But ancient men painted pictures in far-off cave corners, where they lit torches.

Using a fire dynamics simulator developed by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology, scientists calculated possible oxygen concentrations in various enclosed spaces with markedly reduced airflow. In particular, the team clarified that in narrow passages its level fell below 18%.

This concentration of oxygen in the air causes hypoxia that affects nerve tissues, including those in the frontal cortex and the right hemisphere of the brain, researchers say. In this state, people experience an increase in dopamine associated with sleep and hallucinations and feel like they are flying or floating, they add.

When inspecting conditions in various places from the Rouffignac grotto  in the French department of Dordogne – to Altamira – in Cantabria, northern Spain – scientists noted that some of the prehistoric art is found as deep in the caves as the people could come. Images range from paintings to prints, often of animals such as bison, mammoths, and rhinos.

Our ancestors could have gone into the depths to achieve this altered state of consciousness and, in this way, found inspiration.

When interpreting the use of deep caves in the Upper Paleolithic period, we should consider how those early humans may have conceived subterranean hollows in the ground or inside mountains as part of their world cosmology

the researchers say.

We discuss the significance of caves in indigenous world views and 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

the team adds.

At the same time, there are drawings also in large spaces, even near the exits. The authors do not rule out that their creators may also have had hallucinations, but their study was dedicated to places that are difficult to access.

The results of the research were published in Time and Mind magazine.

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