Study: Cave Paintings May Have Been Influenced by Drugs

If you ever took an art history class, you may remember learning that cave paintings look the way they do because human artistic abilities just hadn't advanced that far yet. Or maybe you were told that the composite figures were really meant to represent shamans in masks.

Here's a new hypothesis for you: our ancestors were just high on drugs.

At least, that's the theory being posited by an international group of researchers in a paper this May. The three researchers claim that the "prevalence of certain types of geometric visual patterns found in prehistoric art can be best explained by the common experience of these patterns as geometric hallucinations during altered states of consciousness." They propose that primitive men and women would eat pyschedelic plants and then start painting the images that they would see in these states of altered consciousness.

The patterning found repeatedly in cave art around the world may by caused by Turing instabilities, the researchers say. Turing Instabilities —named after mathematician Alan Turing—are used by scientists to see how substances change and behave in certain situations. In the case of psychedelic drugs, there are substances in the brain that undergo chemical reactions when hallucinogens are introduced into the body, leading people to visualize neural patterns that resemble the cellular structure of the brain itself. These swirls, dots, and lines would then have been painted onto cave walls.

The paper goes on to suggest that the experiences of prehistoric men and women during altered states of consciousness meant that these "the patterns are directly perceived as somehow meaningful and thereby offer themselves as salient motifs for use in rituals.” In other words, our ancestors may have gravitated toward these patterns because the tripped-out brain tends to find certain details more magical or meaningful.

Art and drugs. Working together for 40,000 years.

Image: Raquel Baranow via Flickr