Native Californians Got High in Cave, Painted Rock Art

Digital image of Pinwheel painting, processed with an image enhancing technique called D-Stretch. (Photo by Devlin Gandy)

(CN) — It should come as no surprise to learn California has a history of making psychedelic rock art, but research published Monday traces that legacy back more than 650 years.

“As far as we can find, this is the first unambiguous evidence of the consumption of a hallucinogen occurring at a rock art site anywhere in the world,” said lead author David Robinson, an archaeologist at the University of Central Lancashire in the United Kingdom. “Researchers have been speculating that there is a relationship between rock art and hallucinogens/trances for almost a hundred years.”

An analysis of quids — the remains of fibrous plants — stuck to the ceiling of the Pinwheel Cave in south-central California provides evidence that the Chumash people ingested hallucinogenic plants at the site during the Late Period from 1300 A.D. to as late as the 1800s.

Researchers found two hallucinogenic alkaloids, atropine and scopolamine, in the quids also found in the Datura wrightii, a member of the deadly nightshade family which grows near the cave. Also called the sacred datura, the poisonous plant with white trumpet-shaped flowers can induce hallucinations in the right doses.

The bright red “pinwheel” painting found in the California cave bears a striking resemblance to the Datura flower as its petals unfurl into bloom. Other pictures in the cave depict “transmorphic figure having antennae, dichoptic eye orbits, and an elongated body with four appendages each with three fingers/toes.”

“Rather than the art depicting what is seen in trance, the Pinwheel instead is likely a representation of the plant causing the trance,” researchers explain in the paper. “Instead of a shamanic self-depiction, the transmorph may represent an insect such as the hawkmoth, who consumes nectar from the datura flower before coming under the influence of its effects, thus exhibiting behavior analogous to those consuming datura in the cave.”

Members of the Chinigchinich religion made datura into a tea called toloache to induce visions among youth transitioning into adulthood. Throughout the region, native people ingested datura, “to gain supernatural power for doctoring, to counteract negative supernatural events, to ward off ghosts, and to see the future or find lost objects,” the researchers wrote.

Datura also appears in Tübatulabal and Chumash myths and was taken by hunters to increase stamina. Researchers found evidence of hunters at the cave, including weapons, grindstones and signs of cooking.

Because the plant is so toxic, researchers estimate the quids they analyzed could have been ingested by up to 10 people. Since only one of the cave’s 56 quid-filled hollows was disturbed during the study, it’s likely the site was often used by groups.  

Several members of the Tejon Tribe and the Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians also helped the team of archaeologists complete the research.

“One of the perspectives they brought to the project was they reengage with the site: rather than overly focusing on the rock art or any other singular aspect of the site, they clearly find the entirety of it important, including the rock formation, the trees, the land, the animals, even the wind,” Robinson explained. “Now, they annually revisit the site, to reconnect with this ancestral place and to create new cultural traditions.”

Researchers also consider it significant that the Pinwheel Cave continued to be used during contact with Spanish and Mexican explorers.

“This continuation of datura use shows the resilience of Native practice in the use of an entheogen through successive colonial regimes,” the researchers wrote.

While this connection between psychedelics and art has been confirmed in California, archaeologists around the world continue to search for links between mushrooms, peyote, brunsvigia and other rock art.

Although datura use is historically significant, Robinson stressed that its use should remain in the past.

“This is a plant that should not be dabbled with,” Robinson said. “It is highly toxic and can easily kill one if too large a dose is taken.”

The researchers published their work in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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