The connection between hallucinogenic drugs and some cave art has been a hot topic of debate. While some researchers have noticed what appeared to be psychedelic-looking pictures on cave walls and cliffs, other experts aren’t so sure that drugs had anything to do with the images.
A new discovery in a California cave may provide some answers regarding the state of mind of those who created the art several centuries ago. According to a new study, an international team of researchers found 400-year-old pieces of chewed Datura (a plant with very strong psychoactive properties) that were placed inside of cracks in the ceiling of Pinwheel Cave.
In fact, Pinwheel Cave was named after the swirling red image on the ceiling which appeared to represent the Datura flower. The cave may have been used as a ceremonial place where people might have consumed the hallucinogenic plant. In addition to the red pinwheel, there is a moth with large eyes that was also painted in red.
According to the study, the pinwheel and moth images appear to be connected with hallucinogens. They came to this theory because the Datura flower was a very powerful hallucinogen and the moth (probably a species of hawk moth) is known to have a “loopy” reaction after consuming the nectar from the flower. (Pictures can be seen here.)
As for the chewed lumps (called quids) that were found in the cracks of the ceiling, they contained traces the drugs scopolamine and atropine which can alter the mind and are found in the Datura flower. “Each quid appears therefore to have been a single 'dose,' inserted into the mouth and chewed/sucked in order to extract the hallucinogenic [compounds],” the study read in part.
In another part of the study, it explained that the discovery was “the first clear evidence for the ingestion of hallucinogens at a rock art site, in this case, from Pinwheel Cave, California.” In an interview with Live Science, David Robinson, who is a reader in archaeology at the University of Central Lancashire in England and the lead researcher of the study, explained that the artist probably hadn’t taken the drug when he/she drew the image because of how debilitating its effects were. Instead, the artist was probably just “setting the scene” with the images so people would have something to look at while taking the hallucinogens.
According to researchers, the Chumash people used Datura in ceremonies as well as in their daily lives, especially for medicinal purposes. Historians believe that the drug was ingested to “gain supernatural power for doctoring, to counteract negative supernatural events, to ward off ghosts, and to see the future or find lost objects, but, most especially, as a medicine for a variety of ailments.” Additionally, it was added to a tea called toloache in coming-of-age ceremonies.
Based on radiocarbon dating, the cave was occasionally used between the 1600s and the late 1800s. And it wasn’t just used for ceremonial purposes as archaeologists discovered projectile points and an arrow shaft straightener which suggested that it was used as a location for making hunting tools. Additionally, animal remains and ground seeds were found in the cave which indicated that people stored and prepared food there.
The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences where it can be read in full.