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Bisons painted on the walls of the Covaciella cave in Spain (image via Wikimedia Commons)

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French artist Marcel Duchamp once scorned the painters of his time as “intoxicated by turpentine,” mocking their outdated adherence to the medium. The artists of the Prehistoric era, it turns out, may have had a similar problem. A new study found that history’s earliest painters created their works on the innermost walls of deep, dark caves that required lighting by fire, deliberately reducing their oxygen levels to induce “altered states of consciousness.”

The paper was published by researchers at Tel Aviv University in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture. They focused primarily on caves in Spain and France from the Upper Paleolithic period (between 40,000 and 14,000 years ago) to investigate why humans sought to decorate their most cavernous spots.

By simulating the effect of torches on oxygen concentrations in comparable settings, the authors found that oxygen levels decreased to a state of hypoxia — a condition that boosts the release of dopamine in the brain, potentially resulting in hallucinations and out-of-body experiences.

“Entering these deep, dark environments was a conscious choice, motivated by an understanding of the transformative nature of an underground, oxygen-depleted space,” the paper concludes.

Hey, whatever works to get those creative juices flowing, right?

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...