Researchers had evidence early native Californians used certain wild flora to enter trance states, but exactly how and why these early Californians got high has been subject to fierce debate in the archeological community for decades. Now, a team of scientists may have found an answer in an unusual place: shoved into the ceiling of a cave painting.
For decades, archaeologists believed early Californians' rock paintings depicted three unique visual phases of a hallucinogenic trance — in this case, the personal trance experience of a community shaman — to the exclusion of the rest of the community.
But until now, researchers had no clear evidence of hallucinogen remains at these supposed trance sites.
Using sophisticated technology to study the fibrous remains of these hallucinogenic flowers on a microscopic level, the researchers discovered an unusual connection between the flowers and the paintings they were found near. The finding could overturn the prevailing consensus on how and why these hallucinogens were used.
"[This] tells us a lot about how [this community] integrated rock art and ritual into their daily lives," study co-author David W. Robinson tells Inverse. Robinson is a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Central Lancashire.
Creative connection — For the new study, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers analyzed clumps of plant fiber they found wedged in the ceiling of a rock painting site called the Pinwheel Cave, in California's San Emigdio Mountains.
On the cave's ceiling is a painting which depicts a rotating spiral unraveling from a circular point at its center. It was thought the spiral represented a shaman's individual experience, but the new analysis suggests it is actually a drawing of a hallucinogenic flower native to the area — Datura — whose image it closely mirrors.
This area has historically been, and is still considered to be, part of Chumash territory and is now represented by the Tejon Indian Tribe.
The team first used 3D digital microscopy (a kind of microscope the stitches different images together) to evaluate the fibers. In particular, they looked for evidence of bite marks — tell-tale hints these fiber bundles, called quids, were once chewed and then stuck into the ceiling afterward.
As suspected, the researchers did find tell-tale bite marks in most of the quid bundles. Some of the bundles dated to the year 1523 — pre-colonization.
The researchers then did a chemical analysis to look for hallucinogenic components known to be found in Datura, including scopolamine and atropine.
Finally, to complete the emerging puzzle, the team used a scanning electron microscope to zoom in and create a micrometer image of the plant fibers found in the cave to make the final determination that they were indeed from the Datura plant.
The authors speculate that each individual quid was likely a single dose of the hallucinogen.
Rewriting the story — The discovery is the first example of hallucinogens being discovered at the site of a rock painting. But it also changes the story archaeologists had been telling about these native peoples, study co-author David W. Robinson tells Inverse. Robinson is a lecturer in archaeology at the University of Central Lancashire.
"[This] tells us a lot about how [this community] integrated rock art and ritual into their daily lives," Robinson explains.
"People were doing this literally right under the paintings. Even if the actual consumption of the Datura took place at different times than when people were using the cave ordinarily, the art was a constant reminder of the importance of the plant and its central role in society," he says.
Robinson and his colleagues also found remnants which suggest the cave was used widely — there's evidence of hunting, gathering, cooking, eating, and potentially storage taking place in the Pinwheel Cave.
"[This] evidence at Pinwheel Cave shows that the hallucinogens were taken in a group context, and that the art communicated the ecology of the plant behind the trance rather than the images seen during the trance," Robinson says.
"Rather than being private retreats of male shamans to the exclusion of everyone else, the rock art site as a deeply meaningful place of inclusivity for the entire community."
Abstract: While debates have raged over the relationship between trance and rock art, unambiguous evidence of the consumption of hallucinogens has not been reported from any rock art site in the world. A painting possibly representing the flowers of Datura on the ceiling of a Californian rock art site called Pinwheel Cave was discovered alongside fibrous quids in the same ceiling. Even though Native Californians are historically documented to have used Datura to enter trance states, little evidence exists to associate it with rock art. A multianalytical approach to the rock art, the quids, and the archaeological context of this site was undertaken. Liquid chromatography−mass spectrometry (LC-MS) results found hallucinogenic alkaloids scopolamine and atropine in the quids, while scanning electron microscope analysis confirms most to be Datura wrightii. Three-dimensional (3D) analyses of the quids indicate the quids were likely masticated and thus consumed in the cave under the paintings. Archaeological evidence and chronological dating shows the site was well utilized as a temporary residence for a range of activities from Late Prehistory through Colonial Periods. This indicates that Datura was ingested in the cave and that the rock painting represents the plant itself, serving to codify communal rituals involving this powerful entheogen. These results confirm the use of hallucinogens at a rock art site while calling into question previous assumptions concerning trance and rock art imagery.