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The Really Good Ice Age Cave Artists May Have Been Autistic

There’s cave drawings – stick-figure animals and hand stencils – and then there’s cave art, like the intricate, accurate and sometimes three-dimensional creatures painted by Ice Age artists 30,000 years ago in places like Chauvet Cave in southern France. How did some cave men (and most likely cave women) become such fine artists without the aid of training or previous works to copy? A new study proposes that these works are sure indications that the artists were autistic.

“We looked at the evidence from studies attempting to identify a link between artistic talent and drug use and found that drugs can only serve to dis-inhibit individuals with a pre-existing ability. The idea that people with a high degree of detail focus, many of which may have had autism, set a trend for extreme realism in ice age art is a more convincing explanation.”

Examples of cave drawings from Chauvet Cave

Dr. Penny Spikins, from the Department of Archaeology at England’s University of York, led the research and authored the study, published in the journal Open Archaeology, which sought to link autism and Asperger’s syndrome with prehistoric art and artists. This goes against the accepted easy answer, which is that the artists had access to and a taste for psychedelic plants. Assuming that the cave people who picked up lumps of coal or sticks coated with colored crushed rocks were already predisposed to being creative, the researchers felt that they would see how their drawings were negatively affected by mind-altering substances (think about trying to read what you wrote when you were stoned) and go back to sober painting.

Why these people became artists in the first place led the researchers to consider the controversial idea that all humans are a little autistic in some way and the so-called autism spectrum contains a wide variety of autistic traits that require the sharp focus and attention to details that can result in beautiful art, even in the Ice Age.

“Detail focus is what determines whether you can draw realistically; you need it in order to be a talented realistic artist. This trait is found very commonly in people with autism and rarely occurs in people without it.”

While a few certainly had psychopathic drugs available to alter consciousness and probably used them, this can’t account for the majority of the finely-detailed cave paintings. On the other hand, research has found that the autism gene is hereditary and can be traced back to the dawn of man – causing some researchers to take the controversial stance that autism is not a disorder but a trait in all humans which enhances a broad spectrum of abilities. Moreover, Dr. Spikins believes that, unlike in modern times, these traits were deemed special and those individuals helped and influenced the survival of early humans.

“We suspect that the early development of inherited autism was in part an evolutionary response to ultra-harsh climatic conditions at the height of the last Ice Age. Without the development of autism-related abilities in some people, it is conceivable that humans would not have been able to survive in a freezing environment in which finding food required enhanced skills.”

So, the ability to create fine art was not cultural but more likely an autism trait that helped detail-oriented cave dwellers — most likely women, which will also upend the long-held beliefs that it was the he-man cavemen who saved humanity with brute force – find, gather and prepare the food and shelter needed to survive the move from Africa to Northern Europe.

“Modern culturally constructed definitions of health or disorder may not be particularly helpful in understanding the creation of Upper Palaeolithic art.”

Sounds like it’s time for a change in thinking about autism.


Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.
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