Cave paintings thousands of years old found on distant corners of the globe bear strikingly similar patterns, despite the fact that communication between the fractured pockets of early humans was nigh impossible. New research from Tokyo suggests that these artistic similarities may be more than a coincidence, and that psychedelic drugs may have played a role in standardizing geometric art all around the world.
In other words, those cavemen may have been getting, like, all high to make their art or something.
The research, conducted by Tom Froese, Alexander Woodward, and Takashi Ikegami, entailed evaluating prehistoric cave paintings originating some 40,000 years ago from multiple continents. According to researchers, our stone-age ancestors may have consumed mind-altering plants to put them in a spiritual state before painting.
The resulting hallucinogen-based artwork, they argue, mimics alterations in the human brain known as "Turing instabilities," which may have imbued the cross-continental artwork with their wavy, hypnotic features. It's thought that the "neural patterns" our ancestors were seeing originated from whatever psychedelics they were consuming.
"When these visual patterns are seen during altered states of consciousness they are directly experienced as highly charged with significance," the researchers write. "In other words, the patterns are directly perceived as somehow meaningful and thereby offer themselves as salient motifs for use in rituals."
As Gizmodo's Adam Clark Estes points out, this isn't the first time we've linked cave paintings with hallucinogens. "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," says Estes. "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."
Although it's unclear what kind of mind-bending substances the cavemen may have been using ("Visual hallucinations can be induced in a wide number of ways," write the researchers), those substances were likely sought again and again for spiritual purposes.
Hewing to Turing's instabilities would certainly explain the radical geometric consistency of the ocean-separated cave paintings. And if true, it's a nice and tidy way for explaining mankind's historic love affair with drugs and art.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- It's official: The religious right is calling it quits
- Obama just kneecapped Jeb Bush and Chris Christie's 2016 prospects
- How science is accelerating our search for alien life
- The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1: 10 major differences between the book and the movie
- 6 tiny scientific mistakes that created huge disasters
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- Inside Turkey's shadow war with ISIS
- The dangerously childish morality of liberal ObamaCare supporters
- 10 classic Sesame Street moments we wouldn't show today's kids
Subscribe to the Week