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Ancient cave artists starved themselves of oxygen while painting

April 7, 2021. Summarized by summa-bot.

Compression ratio: 71.4%. 2 min read.

Painting in the Chauvet cave, 32,000-30,000 BC. Found in the collection of Grotte Chauvet. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Ancient cave decorations can be breathtaking to behold, but new research claims the artists may have been starved of oxygen when they were painting.

Ancient cave decorations can be breathtaking to behold, but new research claims the artists may have been starved of oxygen when they were painting.

Analyzing cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic period, from around 40,000 to 14,000 years ago, researchers from Tel Aviv University found that many were located in halls or narrow passages deep inside cave systems navigable only with artificial light.

The study focuses on decorated caves in Europe, mostly in Spain and France, and puts forward an explanation for why cave painters would choose to decorate areas deep inside cave systems.

"It appears that Upper Paleolithic people barely used the interior of deep caves for daily, domestic activities.

"While depictions were not created solely in the deep and dark parts of the caves, images at such locations are a very impressive aspect of cave depictions and are thus the focus of this study. "

Using fire to light the caves would have reduced oxygen levels and led to a state of hypoxia, which releases dopamine and can lead to hallucinations and out-of-body experiences, Ran Barkai, co-author and professor of prehistoric archaeology, told CNN.

Cave painters thought of the rock face as a membrane connecting their world with the underworld, which they believed was a place of plenty, explained Barkai.

The researchers argued that caves played an important role in the belief systems of the Upper Paleolithic period, and that the paintings were part of this relationship.

Barkai also suggested that cave paintings could have been used as part of a kind of initiation rite, given evidence children were present.

Further research will examine why children were taken to these deep cave areas, as well as investigating whether people were able to build a resistance to low oxygen levels, said Barkai.

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