Rock art in a California cave was a visual guide to hallucinogenic plants

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This red propeller image (left), which is about 500 years old, depicts the unbroken petals of the datura flower (right).
Zoom in / This red propeller image (left), which is about 500 years old, depicts the unbroken petals of the datura flower (right).

Rick Bury and Melissa Dabulamanzi

In a cave in Southern California, archaeologists recently found centuries-old bundles of hallucinogenic plants tucked into cracks in the low ceiling, near a painting that may depict a flower of the same plant, called Datura. The pictures drawn may be a visual aid to help people understand the rituals that they experienced in the cave.

Chew this

University of Central Lancashire archaeologist David Robinson and colleagues described bundles of leaves and stems tucked into the domed ceiling of a pinwheel cave in California. The five-armed fan that gives the cave its name is painted red nearby, and is attended by a strange-looking shape with antennae, eyes directed in different directions, and a long body. Archaeologists called it Transmorph, probably because it wouldn’t answer anything else they tried. Based on the histories of radiocarbon beams, people have placed them in the nooks and crannies of a room over several centuries, from about 1530 to 1890.

This matches the age of charcoal from adjacent chambers in the cave, as people left behind traces of more mundane activities: cooking meat, grinding seeds and nuts, and creating stone projectile points. Whatever rituals occurred in the Pinwheel Cave, they were not hidden or separate from everyday life.

Using a technique called mass spectrometry, Robinson and his colleagues studied the chemical composition of four of the beams and found the two compounds scopolamine and atropine – the same chemical mixture found in datura. The Schumach people of California call the plant Mumai We see her as the embodiment of a supernatural grandmother. To Tübatulabal, it is Mo htThe man who later turned into a flowering plant.

Datura can be a deadly poison if you eat too much of it; Take just the right amount, however, and you’ll experience vivid hallucinations and an euphoria-like state. Under a scanning electron microscope, plant fibers in 14 pinwheel cave bundles matched with other samples of the genus Datura. (Robinson and colleagues examined another package that turned out to contain yucca, an edible desert plant.)

Microscopy also showed that the ends of the bundles were crushed and whipped together, and some still had tooth marks pressed onto them. People have apparently chewed bundles of datura leaves and stems before expelling them away in the nooks and crannies of the room. This matches historical descriptions of Schumach and Topatulapal who sometimes ate parts of the datura plant for other rituals. Sometimes the goal may be to heal a bodily wound. Other times, it can be supernatural protection, helping to find a lost object or looking to the future, or an extra boost of strength to hunt.

And in Pinwheel Cave, people seem to be chewing bundles of datura beneath a painted picture of the plant itself.

Under the effect of

For the record, when people use a hallucinogenic substance as part of a religious or spiritual ritual (as opposed to just for fun), anthropologists call the substance a Anthogen. Datura has been a hideous substance in many cultures on several continents, including groups of people across what is now the western United States, from California to Texas. Throughout the western United States, datura flowers have appeared in artworks of many cultures, along with portraits MothsWhich pollinate hallucinogenic flowers.

Prior to its discovery in the Pinwheel Cave, archaeologists had not found any clear evidence that people actually used Datura in any of the sites where this artwork was preserved on cave walls or under rock shelters. This is part of what makes the pinwheel so interesting. The cave drawings, along with the bundles of the datura, suggest that art played a role in some rituals in which people used Datura for trance and visions.

When a datura bud opens onto a flower, its five petals unfold in a vortex that looks just like the five-armed propeller in a pinwheel cave. Robinson and colleagues suggest that the Transmorph, with its strange insect-like antennae and eyes, may actually be a hawk moth, the insect that does most of the pollination work for datura plants.

Groups like Chumash and Tübatulabal, and their predecessors, had traditional stories to explain why datura possessed the power to make insights, but they also understood more real facts of the plant life cycle.

Of course, pollination is a somewhat dangerous business when your favorite food is full of scopolamine. As Robinson and his colleagues explained, the moth “consumes nectar from the datura flower before it is exposed to its effects, and thus exhibits behavior similar to that which consumes datura in a cave.” In other words, the illustration on the ceiling of the cave may be a visual guide to help people understand how the rituals worked and what they were about to experience.

A survival story

However, what is really important about Pinwheel Cave is what it tells us about resilience. People lived and practiced Datura rituals in the cave long before the first European colonists arrived in the area. Evidence indicates that life and rituals at the site continued for centuries during Spanish colonization, through Mexican rule, and finally incorporation into America. This is a huge amount of cultural and political turmoil in a fairly short time.

Robinson and colleagues used portable x-ray light to study the layers of paint on the ceiling of a pinwheel cave. And they found that the pinwheel – the flower of datura, most likely – had been painted and touched many times over the centuries. Generations of people have preserved it, and generations of people have seen it chewing the packages of Datura and slipping into the world of visions.

PNAS2020 DOI: 10.1073 / Banas. 20144529117 (About DOIs).

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