Israeli Archaeologists Crack Mystery of Cave Paintings Done in the Dark

Some of the most beautiful Paleolithic cave art is in the pitch-black depths of cave systems, so who were they drawing for?

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Rhinoceros painted in Chauvet Cave
Rhinoceros painted in Chauvet CaveCredit: Inocybe at French Wikipedia / Chauvet Cave
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Prehistoric cave art can be extraordinarily evocative. When you can see it, that is. Oddly, some of the most masterful drawings were done in the pitch-black depths of caves, some in places almost impossible to reach, let alone appreciate the art.

People have been fascinated by caves since time immemorial. Yet why would a cave dweller tens of thousands of years ago venture hundreds of meters into the lightless underground, and why draw anything there?

Now a groundbreaking paper published by Yafit Kedar and Ran Barkai of Tel Aviv University with independent researcher Gil Kedar in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture suggests an explanation. The paper posits that the Paleolithic artisans were motivated by the transformative nature of the subterranean, oxygen-depleted space; there they could communicate with nonhuman entities inhabiting the underworld. They were making the drawings not for the tribe to see, but for keeping and maintaining their relationships with the cosmos.

Moreover, they were doing so in a state of euphoria. To see in the dark, they lit torches, which diminished the oxygen in the deep reaches of the cave, putting them into altered states of consciousness due to hypoxia.

Who doesn’t love an altered state of consciousness? Leaving drunken elephants and inebriated bats out of it, among humans, hallucinogens have been cited for the ecstatic visions they may induce, and many a modern artist has recoiled from rehab for fear of starving the muse.

It has been postulated that Stone Age artists were stoned to the nines, but no smoking bong was ever discovered (with the exception of hallucinogen use strongly indicated in prehistoric California – the artists drew datura plants and archaeologists identified chewed datura plugs at the site, like tobacco plugs, not bathroom-sink plugs).

Panel showing mammoths and other extinct animals, ChauvetCredit: Claude Valette

Anyway, while visiting rock-art sites in Europe, Yafit Kedar was struck by the enigma. “I wondered why they went into the dark, into such seclusion – why go to the end a kilometer inside? These caves are scary, with narrow passages, and I kept banging my head,” she told Haaretz.

Curiosity might lead one to do that; just ask any spelunker. But then why paint beautiful pictures there? And then Kedar had her eureka moment: the insight that torch fire deep inside a poorly ventilated cave system would induce hypoxia, which in turn could produce hallucinations and other perceptual distortions without need to resort to drugs. That in turn was reminiscent of ritual intoxication practices among modern hunter-gatherers.

Kedar also surmises that once the Paleolithic artists became aware of this effect, they entered the caves and induced the intoxication deliberately.

Obviously, not all cave art was done in pitch-black depths; some was done at cave entrances, rock shelters and so on. But some was done in places where the artists would have been blind as bats without artificial illumination; this includes some of the most magnificent prehistoric paintings ever done.

It’s true that Kedar and her colleagues couldn’t simulate the emergence of hypoxic ecstasy in smoke-filled poorly ventilated chambers on test subjects, because it isn’t safe. They based that aspect on reports from research on the effects of high altitudes on pilots and trekkers.

But they could simulate the ventilation and atmosphere inside narrow Paleolithic caves using software created for architecture and engineering; for instance, to plan ventilation in underground parking lots, and what to do there when fire breaks out, Kedar says.

Cave painting in the Grotte de RouffignacCredit: Cave painter
Font-de-Gaume cave, with narrow entrancesCredit: Ethan Doyle White

And so, simulating caves with narrow mouths and based on separate research verifying the simulations, the team demonstrated that when fire is used deep inside a narrow-mouthed cave or narrow cave corridor, the concentration of oxygen drops fast. The people inside become oxygen deprived, and this hypoxia induces an alternative state of consciousness.

Hypoxia symptoms can range from hallucinations to out-of-body experiences, Kedar and Barkai write. Don’t try this at home.

Given that even stoned to the gills, one doesn’t necessarily start drawing mammoths, and given the frequency (if not ubiquity) of inexplicable deep-cave art, once the process had been learned, you can become accustomed to it, the researchers posit.

This could explain part of the mystery of why prehistoric people painted pictures where nobody could see them naturally. No human, that is.

Into the dark

Once these humans had experienced the process, entering these gloomy environments with torches was a conscious choice, the researchers contend. The choice was driven by perceiving the underground, oxygen-depleted space as a place to transit between states of being. It was an ontological arena “allowing early humans to maintain their connectedness with the cosmos,” the authors write.

Rock art possibly of leopard, and hand stencils, in the depths of Pech Merle caveCredit: HTO, User:Kersti Nebelsiek / Own

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

Which means what exactly? That the prehistoric group entering the cave with torches thought, in their hypoxic ecstasy, that they were communicating with some other being – spirits, ancestors, who knows. Such things are known from history, the Oracle of Delphi being one of the most famed examples. The Pythoness, as she was called, is thought to have whiffed naturally-occurring ether emanating from cracks in the Earth, experiencing obscure visions and passing them on.

“The idea is they went in [to the bowels of caves] because they believed something was there, that there were entities beyond the wall,” Kedar says. And that’s why they went as far as the end of the cave. Drawings can be found more than 500 meters inside, she adds.

“The rock face itself, within the cave or the rockshelter, was conceived as a membrane, a tissue connecting the here-and-now world and the underground world beyond,” the authors wrote in a separate article. Underworld not as in hell but “a world of prosperity, plenty, and growth.”

The paper provides examples of modern societies that see caves as a portal to the cosmos, to another world. They note the Mesopotamian myth of Ishtar’s Descent and Resurrection: The soul departs the body upon death and descends to the Netherworld, located at the deepest level of the cosmos, through cracks in the ground.

At the other end of the planet, the Cherokees also perceived caves and crevices as portals to another world. At one cave, researchers found Cherokee “mirror writing” as if for someone on the other side of the wall. Yafit Kedar speculates that, as postulated for the Cherokees, the prehistoric perpetrators of Europe’s decorated caves were drawing for the entities in the underworld.

El Castillo CaveCredit: Reuters

But how relevant are modern hunter-gatherer societies to our understanding of people’s motivations tens of thousands of years ago?

Prof. David Whitley, an expert on ethnography and rock art who did not take part in the paper by Kedar, Kedar and Barkai, thinks there is a relevance and applauds the research for putting to rest the debate over whether the earliest European cave art was associated with altered states of consciousness.

“A number of archaeologists (myself included) have argued that this art most likely resulted from shamanistic practices involving trance and hallucinations. One argument against our interpretation was that there was no evidence for hallucinogenic plants/substances in western Europe at that time,” he told Haaretz in an email. “This paper demonstrates conclusively that entry into many of these caves with a torch or lamp would have guaranteed a visionary experience.”

Whitley notes that cave sites were visited by people other than the artists, as attested by the occasional preservation of footprints, including of children. The implication is that they too would have experienced an altered state of consciousness, a kind of group trance. “This is a novel and important implication of this research,” Whitley says.

But note, as Whitley does, that association between altered states of consciousness and/or visions and rock art isn’t universal. Some hunter-gatherers practiced shamanistic religions involving direct interaction with the supernatural, but not all. “Much Australian aboriginal rock art has no relationship to trance, for example,” Whitley says. “Religion among Australian aborigines emphasizes world renewal rituals rather than shamanism.”

Artistic asphyxia

Figurative cave art is the fief of Homo sapiens, going by present evidence (there is no evidence of figurative Neanderthal art). The earliest-known painting is of a warty pig; it was found just this year in a very inaccessible cavesite in Indonesia and is about 45,500 years old.

The first muse: A warty pigCredit: Laurel Powell / Shutterstock

Western rock art is better known, thanks to the likes of the exquisite images in the caves of Chauvet and Lascaux in France. So far about 400 decorated caves have been found in Western Europe, mostly in Spain and France, between 14,000 and 40,000 years old give or take, some painted where people could see, some in dark chambers.

Use of torchlight has been proved. Separate studies have identified hearths, charcoal, torch marks and soot on the walls. (There is evidence of some domestic activity in the depths, though most things were done where people could see: open-air sites, rock shelters, and cave entrances.)

With the help of software and Kedar’s insight, the Tel Aviv team set out to calculate air-circulation patterns in narrow-mouthed caves or passages, and how the torches would affect oxygen levels.

Note that the study isn’t pertinent to well-ventilated caves with large mouths, where fire creates distinct upper and lower layers of air. Heated air rises, so toward the ceiling we find fire-exhaust gases; the lower layer consists of normal air from outside. But if the cave mouth is narrow or a narrow corridor, when torches are used for illumination, both the upper and lower levels of air become hypoxic. Oxygen quickly falls from open-air levels of 21 percent to below 18 percent, which can cause hypoxia.

Since hypoxia can’t be induced in the lab, it has been studied in the context of high-altitude pilots and mountaineers, not wrecked artists. Still, the results are illuminating. Hypoxia makes us hyperventilate; our hearts race and so do our minds. It affects the frontal cortex and the right hemisphere of the brain, areas that may be associated with emotion-driven creativity.

Hypoxia may also be accompanied by euphoria and a propensity to misjudgment, the team points out.

It also ramps up dopamine secretion in the brain, which can cause dreams and hallucinations, sometimes associated with reported out-of-body experiences and sensations of flying or floating, not to mention near-death experiences (that bright-light phenomenon, for instance). Evidently the effect is highly personal.

La Pasiega cave, narrow entranceCredit: AVANTI

Anyway, some of the greatest cave art, including the soaring, sweeping images of Chauvet and Trois-Frères, were created in the dark.

The eye of the buzzed beholder

Arguing in favor of cosmic connectivity, à la Whitley: why would anybody create art in places that are very difficult to see and dangerous to enter, if the goal is purely aesthetic or decorative?

One feature in spectacular, deep-cave western European art is superposition and repetition. One famous example is the horse-heads panel at Chauvet Cave. Interpretation of Paleolithic symbolic systems has to remain speculative.

“We also commonly see repetitions of motifs – an iconographic system – in corpora of rock art, again indicative of communicative rather than purely decorative intent,” Whitley says. “By this I don’t imply that rock art has no aesthetic component. In many cases it clearly does. But that doesn’t seem to have been its goal or main justification.”

Even so, he believes the European Paleolithic paintings are our first evidence of true artistic genius. Indeed, tens of thousands of years after the event, the pictures seem alive. But the bottom line is there can’t be one reason behind rock art, which is found – it turns out – everywhere sapiens set its feet.

“In western North America alone, for example, rock art was exclusively made by shamans among some tribes. But in others it might also be made by puberty initiates – boys and/or girls – and in others include adults experiencing life crises too (e.g., the death of a spouse),” Whitley says. But throughout North America, it seems artistic creation was associated with visionary experiences and the perceived receipt of supernatural power.

Prof. Barkai and his team believe that early humans lived in harmony with nature, or at least strove to, as seen in their attempts to fully exploit the carcasses of their prey. In separate work with Miki Ben-Dor, it’s argued that the homo line became super-predators from the time of Homo erectus. But when we started importuning Others – ancestors, gods, spirits, the river nymph, whoever – for help in catching prey or whatever, well, it can’t be known.

Couldn’t we be imposing our values when imputing spiritual motivation behind acts by peoples who passed onto the great void tens of thousands of years ago? Surely we changed in that time. Why draw such parallels?

Whitley says: “The conceptual and practical division between the supernatural/sacred/religious world and the mundane realm is a largely modern and western conceit that has become especially prominent since the Protestant Reformation. Many traditional peoples saw/see no separation between daily versus religious life; many don’t even recognize that they have a ‘religion’ per se. I then concur with the notion that many prehistoric peoples felt a strong connection to the supernatural and the cosmos.”

He adds that the ethnographic record shows that with rare exceptions, rock art is indeed associated with ritual and beliefs. “The concept of ‘art for art’s sake’ is a relatively recent western attitude,” he says – and if anything, the propensity for drawing in the dark seems to support that assumption.

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