Californian Cave Art Was Hallucinogenic Plant Guide

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Californian Cave Art Was Hallucinogenic Plant Guide

Postby toucana on November 26th, 2020, 12:28 pm 

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At a cave in Southern California, archaeologists recently found centuries-old bundles of hallucinogenic plants tucked into crevices in the low ceiling, near a painting that may depict a flower from the same plant, called datura. The painted images may have been a visual aid to help people understand the rituals they experienced in the cave.

https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/11/rock-art-in-a-california-cave-was-a-visual-guide-to-hallucinogenic-plants/


University of Central Lancashire archaeologist David Robinson and his colleagues describe the bundles of leaves and stems tucked into the domed ceiling of California's Pinwheel Cave. The five-armed pinwheel that gives the cave its name is painted in red nearby, attended by a bizarre-looking figure with antennae, eyes pointed in different directions, and a long body. Archaeologists have dubbed it the Transmorph, perhaps because it wouldn’t answer to anything else they tried. Based on radiocarbon dates of the bundles, people placed them in the room’s nooks and crannies over several centuries, from about 1530 to 1890.

That matches the age of charcoal from nearby chambers in the cave, where people left behind traces of more mundane activities: cooking meat, grinding seeds and nuts, and making stone projectile points. Whatever rituals happened in Pinwheel Cave, they weren’t hidden away or separate from everyday life.

Using a technique called mass spectrometry, Robinson and his colleagues studied the chemical composition of four of the bundles and found the compounds scopolamine and atropine—the same chemical mixture that’s found in datura. The Chumash people of California call the plant Momay and see it as the embodiment of a supernatural grandmother figure. To the Tübatulabal, it’s Mo mo ht, a man who later transformed into the flowering plant.

Microscopic examination also revealed that the ends of the bundles had been crushed and matted together, and some even had tooth marks still pressed into them. Clearly, people had chewed on these bundles of datura leaves and stems before tucking them away into nooks and crannies in the chamber.


When people use a hallucinogen as part of a religious or spiritual ritual (as opposed to just for fun), anthropologists call the substance an entheogen. Datura has been a popular entheogen in a lot of cultures on several continents, including groups of people across what is now the Western United States, from California to Texas. And across the Western US, datura flowers have turned up in several cultures’ artwork, along with images of hawkmoths, which pollinate the hallucinogenic flowers.
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