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A photo of cave art featuring a variety of animals.

News story

New research shows cavemen were plant blind

May 10, 2023

New research from Edge Hill University shows that humanity’s ancient ancestors were just as blind to the plant life around them as modern humans.

The study, led by two botanists, Dr Sven Batke and Georgina Walton, has revealed that plant depictions in European Palaeolithic cave art are incredibly scarce.

After searching 5,786 images, they found just four, less than 1%, with plants. In contrast, animals appear in 53% of the images, abstract symbols in 43% and humans in 3%.

The team set out to investigate the historical context of plant blindness, the tendency for people to ignore plants in the environment, and whether it is a symptom of modern life or something humans have always experienced.

Dr Sven Batke profile picture.

Dr Sven Batke, Reader in Plant Sciences, said: “Plants are ubiquitous, accounting for over 80% of the world’s biomass; they sustain life, provide food, shelter and medicine. Yet despite all this, humans commonly fail to notice the plants around them and perceive animals far more easily.

“While many think this is a relatively modern phenomenon, a result of our built-up environment and loss of green space, our research shows that humans have always been blind to plants, instead focusing on themselves, animals and, in the case of ancient peoples, abstract art.”

The human inability to notice plants in the environment is well documented and has been tested in multiple experiments. In the majority of cases, people notice animals, other humans and buildings long before they observe any plants.

Evidence shows that, in the Palaeolithic era, gathering plants was a more significant source of food, tools and building materials than hunting. Despite this, the underrepresentation of plants in cave art is common in Europe and has also been reported in other sites around the world.

Dr Batke added: “The concept of plant blindness can be found within scientific literature dating back over 100 years, but our study shows that this trend stretches back much further than that. 

“There could be explanations for this – such as the loss of any art drawn outside of caves or the lack of nearby plants when drawing within a cave – but none of them fully explain the dramatic difference in depictions of animals compared to plants. 

“Put simply, when it came to art, our ancestors were far more interested in depicting animals than plants.”

The oldest site the team analysed was from the caves of Maltravieso in Spain, dated to 64,000 years ago. This period, the Palaeolithic, is the oldest part of the Stone Age and covers the period from when humans were becoming recognisably human to the period after the most recent Ice Age. 

The full paper can be found published in the Plants People Planet research journal.

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May 10, 2023


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