There’s something undeniably surreal about early cave paintings, something otherworldly or even psychedelic. According to a team of international scientists that’s because the cave painters were doing mind-bending drugs while painting them.
Researchers Tom Froese, Alexander Woodward and Takashi Ikegami from Tokyo recently published a comprehensive study of over 40,000 years worth of cave paintings and found some pretty telling patterns. The spiral-like and labyrinthian designs that pop up in paintings from locations that are thousands of miles away from each other didn’t just pop up by coincidence. Since these patterns are consistent with those that many humans see after taking hallucinogenic drugs, the scientists think that ancient cavemen had more in common than previously thought. They all loved to get high.
Specifically known as “Turing instabilities,” these hallucinations are common after ingesting a number of different plants with psychoactive properties. The patterns resemble “neural patterns” that mimic the structural makeup of the brain and are as meaningful as those that initially experienced them perceived them to be. “‘When these visual patterns are seen during altered states of consciousness they are directly experienced as highly charged with significance,” the researchers suggest. “In other words, the patterns are directly perceived as somehow meaningful and thereby offer themselves as salient motifs for use in rituals.”
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard that hallucinogenic drugs may have played a role in early cave paintings — though it’s the most scientifically rigorous evidence yet. A couple of years ago, a 6,000-year-old cave painting in Spain ignited a small buzz after scientist identified what appeared to be images of psychedelic mushrooms in one of the murals. This finding was consistent with earlier hypotheses drawn from similar paintings that suggested cavemen knew about the special powers some plants possessed and possibly used those plants to inspire some of the earliest works of art known to man.
But again, the scientific rigour of this latest study is what’s crucial here. Not only did they connect known patterns from ancient cave paintings to modern day research on hallucinations, but they also mapped the projected hallucinations to particular regions of the brain that would’ve been active after taking such drugs. The study bases much of its findings on the founding notions of neurophenomenology, which is the study of the relationship between brain functioning and human experience. While we can’t exactly do a brain scan of what’s inside these 10,000-year-old men’s heads, we can find a common link between the images that came out of those heads 10,000 years ago and images that we still see in art produced by men under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs. Those paintings teach us a lot about mankind through the ages. They teach us not only that we’ve always loved art, but that we’ve always loved drugs too. [Adaptive Behavior via Daily Mail]