Cavemen Were So Freaking High When They Made All Those Cave Paintings


If you’ve thought about it at all, you’ve probably come to the conclusion that being a caveman sucked. There was NO Internet, NO such thing as burritos, you spent all your time during the day grunting and escaping predators, and you also carried on your hunched-over hominid shoulders the responsibility of the whole future human race. Being a caveman is hard and unrewarding!

Well, maybe not as hard and unrewarding as we previously thought, according to new research: a new paper hypothesizes that cavemen used to get high on drugs and hallucinate and then make those famous wonky cave paintings. This one probably happened during a prehistoric DayGlo rave.

In all seriousness, the findings are rather fascinating — the theory challenges the long-held notion that early arts were merely an attempt to chronicle the external world. The theory that our Paleolithic ancestors deliberately entered an altered state and assigned special significance to their hallucinations says a lot about human consciousness. According to the paper’s abstract:

[T]he worldwide prevalence of these [certain types of geometric visual patterns found in prehistoric art] has been explained by appealing to humanity’s shared neurobiological embodiment…Altered states of consciousness thus provide a suitable pivot point from which to investigate the complex relationships between symbolic material culture, first-person experience, and neurobiology.

The study examines the shapes to which cave painters gravitated. The researchers cite decades-old research that claims that “geometric hallucinations… are mental representations of neural patterns.” So, according to this line of thinking, the tripping cavemen all saw the same patterns because they’re projections of neural patterns. However, the authors note that this hypothesis isn’t sufficient: “[W]hile these neural models are capable of reproducing some of the geometric patterns that are found in prehistoric art… their range remains severely limited.”

The question remains as to why our ancestors had certain geometric fixations — the study lists four: gratings/lattices/honeycombs/checkerboards, tunnels/cones, cobwebs, and spirals — that constantly reoccured, even in disconnected geographic regions. If you’ve ever been in the weird blacklight poster closet in the back of a head shop (yes, you have, do not try and deny it), you’re aware that these shapes are still a big hit with hallucinatory drug enthusiasts.

The researchers posit, “Self-sustaining dynamics may account for why these geometric hallucinations were experienced as more significant than other phenomena… Their underlying neural dynamics may have served to mediate and facilitate a form of imaginary sense-making that is not bound to immediate surroundings.” In other words: checkerboards and squiggles seem to have some sort of cosmic significance when you’re high as shit; imbued with ritualistic import, their reoccurrence is seen as mystical.

And maybe they are cosmically significant? After all, we’ve been staring at them and going, “Woooooah. NO. WAY.” since before we could even walk fully upright.

“The Stoned Age: Were cavemen on drugs?” [Salon]

Image via Dallas Events Inc/Shutterstock.

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