Archive for the ‘Contacting spiritual forces’ Category

It it is compelling that, in the first recorded appearance of psychoactive substances in the New World, drug use presents itself as a mechanism used by a population to meet social, economic, and religious needs. Pecos people and their neighbors consumed their drug as a means of confronting the fear and anxiety of the hunt or the war, the economic imperative of locating food in perilous environments, the drive some individuals felt to achieve power, ritual privileges and leadership, and the possible standards ordinary members of society might apply in judging an individual’s capacity for leadership.

Something of comparable value can be said about the use of pituri by pre-European Aboriginal Australians. Although no white knowledge exists of how this population conceptualized pituri use, nor or any significant social-cultural features which linked to pituri consumption, it was obvious to white observers that  people who controlled access to the drug  wielded power over others, and that individuals possessing sufficient surplus of the drug could initiate the annual flow of  complex trading systems. Demand for the drug  was so high that at least one community seems to have responded by an intensified use of land.

Given that both these ancient drug histories illustrate a linkage between drug consumption and economic, political, religious and social goals, could these  patterns be discerned through time?  Probably some of them, I concluded, perhaps enough to establish that frequently drug consumption is culturally useful and appropriate, as well as potentially dangerous.

If  modern accounts of psycho-active substances are added to ethnographic data, to fragmentary evidence from archaeology, information from old pharmacopoeias, the findings from linguistic, botanical, and folkloric studies, and references to drug use  in ancient scripts, what emerges is that societies generally find three major tasks for drug consumption in the socio-cultural area. In the economic and political field, the picture is more complex.  Drug use  is frequently associated  with profound changes in these areas. And in many situations the relationship seems a causal one,  in which those who control access to drugs manipulate supply for their own gain.


Societies and individuals address one or more of three socio-cultural issues with drugs

  •  People employ drugs to facilitate communication  with the ‘supernatural’.  Under this term  I include all those abstract entities,  referred to by  terms such as  god/s,  spirits, deities, religious and heavenly beings, and inspirers of creativity.
  • People consume drugs to create a socially-shared and altered reality in  which structured, differentiated society loosens its hold, creating an ‘anti-structure ‘in which  role playing and hierarchies diminish, human interaction increases, and social bonding occurs.
  • People consume drugs to  create or emphasize an image of themselves or others which is relevant to a particular situation. In this case, use lies along a spectrum from the instrumental to the symbolic

Communication with the supernatural. All societies seek the values of the ideal life and the practices by which these  can be achieved.  Communication with supernatural forces is a means to this end in most ethical/religious systems.  ‘Upwards’ go petitions, prayers, request for help, spiritual offerings, and sacrifice. In return down come advice, warnings, omens, occasional divine  appearances, demands for further human privations such as fasts or quests for enlightenment, plus rewards for virtue and punishment for evil.  In  most parts of  world  societies have,or still do, link this communication with consumption of  mind-altering substances. As mentioned earlier in the post of  March 15th 2012, Paleolithic people living in the Northern Hemisphere employ plant drugs for this reason, as did those first  populations who migrated into North, South and Middle America. At least ten thousand  years elapsed as this pattern of use continued in the Americas alone. Australian Aborigines have a 5, 000 use of pituri in what appears to be  a spiritual connection.

 The archaeologist/anthropologist Andrew Sherratt from the University of Oxford wrote that it can no longer be doubted that drug consumption has been ‘fundamental to human life and is likely to be at least as old as the emergence of Homo sapiens (1995).  Taking this statement as written,  Sherratt is not  claiming outright that drug use and spiritual communication  are as old as humanity. But since drugs alter states of consciousness, drugs by definition allow consumers to transcend ordinary or common experience,  thoughts or beliefs and interrogate alternatives. From an atheistic and humanist perspective, this potentially links drug consumption to spiritual concepts.

Providing a comprehensive account of this association between drugs and religion world-wide is un-achievable, given the vast  number of  instances, the fragmentary nature of the evidence, and the fact that no written  languages existed prior to 5000 BC. Nevertheless,two instances have intrinsic interest: one because  it  is the oldest written record drug use in a religious context; , the second because its probably the last significant bloom of ancient shamanism in European history.  I repeat them below


Perhaps as long ago as 4 000 B.P, a  nomadic people calling themselves Aryans spread south-east from their point of origin, finally settling in the Indus valley in what is now Iran. They were patriarchal cattle herders who  spoke Sanskrit, and were the first peoples  to domesticate the horse. Not surprisingly, their religious beliefs and rituals related to cattle and the way of life which herding imposed on them. Intrinsic to their prayers, wishes and rituals was soma, an intoxicating, and now, today, a mysterious, plant substance.  Soma was also a male moon god, perhaps a unique conjunction in mythologyy.  The  insights and pleasures soma  bestowed appear in The Rig Vedas, the oldest literary product of  Hindu religio.n

Thy juices, purified Soma, all pervading, swift as thought, go of themselves like the off-spring of swift mares…

He  [Soma] excites reverence, watches over the herds, and leads by the shortest road to success…

  He makes the sun rise in the heavens, restores what has been lost, has a thousands ways and means of help, heals all, chases away the black skin and gives everything into the possession of the pious Ary

Soma is an example of difficulties faced by researchers seeking information about psycho-active plants in the distant past. For some unknown reason, the Aryans gave up the consumption of soma soon after arriving in the IndusValley. Perhaps they failed to get the plant to grow in their new territory. Consequently nobody today is certain of the plant’s identity.  After decades of studying the issue, R.Gordon Wasson, the ethno-botanist from  Harvard University’s Museum of Botany, argued that soma is the hallucinogenic fly-agaric (Amanita muscaria). This is the mushroom of Alice in Wonderland and other children’s tales, with its red top spotted with white.   Many disagree with Wesson’s conclusion. One caveat is that, during ritual, priests produced a juice from soma,  and this seems unlikely were the latter a mushroom. Other suggestions identify soma with  Ephedra, (the source of the stimulant ephedrine), or fermented mares milk, or haoma,  a chemical found in Syrian rue (Peganum harmala). The secret may never be revealed. Scholars able to translate the Rig Veda usually lack skills in botany, pharmacology and pharmacognosy, and perhaps  miss significant clues to the plant’s identity.

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The lower Pecos may not be the earliest place in the Americas where people utilized psychoactive drugs, but to date, it is the earliest evidence of drug use in the New World. As in ancient Egypt, in Pecos caves the dry desert air desiccated organic objects like wood, food, mescal bean, bone (lower rodent mandibles) woven objects (ritual basket), and cave paintings. The caves’ situation high up on cliffs removed any damage of water from flooding rivers below. Consequently, some remnants ofPecos actions and values remained for us to contemplate. Other in-coming Siberian peoples must have settled, searched and discovered replacements for the drugs they had used in their past homes, but conditions favoring preservation of their culture and their drug use did not exist,

FromPecos(and similar but unknown places) knowledge of visionary shamanism diffused outwards. As people gradually settled throughout  North Central, andSouth Americathey kept their ancient emphasis on shamanism. But the settlers needed additional pharmacognostic research.  Mescal bean itself grew only in a small area. Settlers moving beyond mescal bean’s natural distribution pattern  needed to continuously identify local psychoactive substances which would permit shamanic rituals, and hence community sustenance.

Their experimentation proved successful. By the time Europeans arrived, native Americans were utilizing between 80-100 psychoactive substances in a ritual context. In contrast, inEuropein the same period, people employed only about eight to ten psychoactive plants: alcohol (which is made from plants ) opium, a number of  tropane-containing plants (those ubiquitous true hallucinogens falsely suspected of being the active ingredients in pituri), and cannabis. Small ritual vessels found in rich burials in Bronze AgeBritainand elsewhere suggest to the archaeologist Sherratt that people may have burned and then inhaled not only cannabis but other mind-altering plants as yet unidentified

The anomaly of people utilizing more psychoactive plants in the New World than they did in the Old World intrigued many scholars including Richard Evans Schulte, an ethno-botanist and the recognized authority on New World hallucinogens, and Weston La Barre, a leading anthropologist in the fields of religion and psychology. Together, they posited that the reverse situation would be far more credible; that is, Old World societies should be utilizing more kinds of psychoactive plants than theNew Worldpeoples used.

The Old World has a greater land mass, a flora at least as rich and varied as theNew World, and probably the same number of hallucinogenic plants. Moreover, people have existed in parts of theOld Worldonwards since the time of proto-humans (that is, millennia before the emergence of Homo sapiens about 70 000 years ago). Consequently,Old Worldsocieties have had untold time to explore their environment and identify many mind-altering substances. Yet there is presently little evidence of this beyond the meager eight to ten plants already known.

Schultes and La Barre  speculated about this anomaly. They decided that  economic, social and religious changes account for the difference. Visionary shamanism complemented the hunting and gathering lifestyles which originally existed in both the Old and New World. As long as this lifestyle dominated, wide knowledge and use of drug plants existed. But when societies in Europe and Eurasia turned to farming in the Neolithic period—which began in varied times in varied places some time after 10 000 BPE and before about 2 000BPE—people of that time found visionary shamanism less valuable or appropriate, and knowledge of psychoactive plants slowly declined. The intolerant fanaticism of Old Worldreligions, particularly Christianity and Islam, added further impetus to the trend. These patriarchal, monotheistic belief systems transformed areas where their values took hold and almost, but not quite, eliminated many drug-using Old Worldcommunities.  However, when Christianity arrived in the Middle and South Americasin the 15th century, it attacked drug-related shamanism but it lacked the force to significantly defeat it. Consequently, a pharmacopoeia of useful psychoactive plants remained within the public domain.

What is ironic is that Catholicism, which had helped destroy visionary shamanism, itself ensures that the structural link between the supernatural and the psychoactive continuously repeats itself acrossEuropeand beyond.  In the Mass, the priest miraculously changes the psychoactive alcohol (wine) into the blood of Christ; The priest  drinks the chalice of  Christ’s blood; and under its authority the priest bestows Christ’s blessing on his people. The priest delivers a sermon to the congregation which outlines and interprets Christ’s suffering for, and affirmations to, humanity, and, in turn, humanity’s obligations to Christ. Even suffering exists as a mutual ingredient. The shaman usually displays the effects of the toxic drug used: tremors, vomiting, spasms or loss of consciousness etc.  These validate the shaman, and are taken as his willingness to suffer to aid others.

The ancient link between psychoactive substance and religion resonates today, I believe. The connection between wine and the Blood of Christ is so momentous and intrinsic to Catholic beliefs and ritual, that the Church finds it impossible to classify alcohol as just one psychoactive substance among many. Hence, its continuous use of the phrase ‘alcohol and drugs’ particularly damaging inVaticanhealth directives to medical professionals.

Another echo of the supernatural/drug linkage appears in the ‘drug-active/ people-passive’ construction. There can be no doubt than in the ancient past, chance encounters between individuals and psychoactive plants must have awed the accidental user. Drug plants which seemed to conjure up supernatural beings and altered consumers’ minds and emotions quite naturally appeared active and powerful in respect to humans. This may explain how the concept began that drugs could ‘alter’ behavior, ‘cause’ mishaps, ‘ruin’ judgments, etcetera..


Finally, an irony:  Despite the United States’ intolerance of psychoactive drugs, except psychoactive alcohol, theUnited Statesincludes inTexasthe area where people had continuously consumed the same drug (mescal bean) for longer than any one psychoactive drug has been consumed elsewhere.


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Range of the Plains Indians at the time of European contact (source: Wikipedia).

Although the advent of the Spanish caused the destruction of Pecos society, Plains Indian tribes, the Apache, Comanche, Iowa, Kansa, Omaha, Pawnee, and others had already adopted use of mescal bean and visionary shamanism from the Pecos River societies.  Cowboy and Indian movies of the 1930s and 1940s drew ispiration from  these tribes from the plains of middle USA;  strong nosed-people with magnificent feathered war ‘bonnets’, tee-pees, peace pipes; and often fresh scalps swaying and dripping from the bridles of their horses.  Most Plains Indians were hunters and warriors with a horse-based culture. A  few were horticulturalist, and a few mixed the two strategies.

How and when  mescal bean shamanism diffused into Plains Indian groups is unknown . But by 1539, Plains Indian tribes had captured Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish ‘hidalgo’ (which at that time meant a member of the Spanish aristocracy or gentry).  He became a  Christian slave among the warring tribes. In one comparatively happy period in the Texas/Mexico region, Cabeza de Vaca  survived as a ‘neutral merchant’ His diary notes exchanging, among other things… ‘fruit like a bean which the Indians value very highly, using it for a medicine and for a ritual beveridge in their dances and festivities’.  Richard Evans Schultes, a prominent ethno-botanist and the recognized authority on New World hallucinogens identified Cabeza de Vaca’s  ‘bean’  as  mescal bean (Sophora secundiflora) .

White observers from the  17th century onwards centuries left brief accounts of visionary drug use among Plains Indian tribes. Many reports contain description of dress, body decorations and other items coinciding with material items occurring in the paintings, made thousands of year earlier. For example, the fur skins worn over the arm appear in both cave paintings and early white reports. Even the ritual basket’s rodent jaws shed their weirdness and gain authority: to test the depth of  the  shaman’s trance.

 This [Pawnee Deer] society teaches that all animal powers were learnt through the power of the mescal bean. Tea made from mescal beans by a definite formula is given to the candidate, and when he falls unconscious, the leader tests him by rasping down his spine with the toothed jaw of the gar-fish; if he moves or flinches in the least, he is rejected [sic] once for all [my emphasis] (Campbell) 1958

  [a] small red bean, which produced a violent spasm, and finally unconsciousness, this condition being indicated by the ability of the novice to suffer pain when the jaw of a gar-pike was drawn over his naked body (Weston La Barre) 1957: 708-711

Still unsolved though, is the meaning of the one right mandible in the ritual basket among ten left mandibles. Was it simply an error? Or could it perhaps have been a focal point of the procedure?

These early reports are fragmented, often unsure of whether the psychoactive drug used is nicotine, peyote or mescal bean–all of which Plains Indian tribes used at one time or another.  Most reports focus on ‘vision quests’. This is an individual’s search for a guardian-spirit which bestows power on the individual.  In a sense, this is the seeker inducting himself into adulthood, and the event is remembered as a major one  in life.  The novice employs a psychoactive drug to achieve a vision. Additional methods of altering the state of consciousness often accompanied drug use: fasting,  purification , isolation, and sometimes forms of body mutilation.  Once attained, the dream or vision could result in the novice gaining in power, status, knowledge or ritual privileges, but only if the novice could demonstrate in action the strength and usefulness of his vision for himself and the community. (Albers and Parker 1971).

The vision quest appears little different from shamanism, except perhaps that it is a young man seeking the vision, rather the older men who usually function as shamans.  However, no first hand observations of Pecos shamans existed: so the finer points of similarity or difference are obscure.

Vision quests have been a well organised and fundamental part of social behaviour among Plains Indian tribes in the last three or four centuries. In the early 20th century, members of the relatively new discipline of anthropology in the USA began searching and collating early accounts of vision quests for more extensive information of what was obviously an important cultural form.  Ruth Benedict, one of the earliest U.S. anthropologists  wrote from a historical diffusionist point of view in 1922 -1923. Her major contribution was to establish the geographical spread of vision quests and their connections with socio-cultural phenomena such as shamanism and puberty rites. Later anthropologists, like Lowie in 1954,  focused upon the psychological function vision quests possessed for individuals. Lowie believed the quests increased confidence for the individual in his ability to maximize mastery over the environment. Another argument posited that visions produced highly independent and inner directed individuals capable of innovative thought and action . This ties in with  Newcomb’s explaining of the origins and abrupt cessation of cave art as actions possibly ordered by visionary beings. (See earlier post ).

In 1970, when ecological issues became increasingly prominent, Patricia Albers and Seymour Parker took the discussion in a new direction in ‘The Plains Vision Experience: a Study of Power and Privilege’ in The Southwestern Journal of Anthropology.  They argued that ‘variations in the vision quest relate to variations in the social structure and ultimately to ecological variables’. While agreeing that vision quests generally did legitimize status, power and privilege, they argued that circumstances and features of the process depend upon whether a particular Plains Indian societies was predominately hunter/ gatherer, or horticultural, or a mixture of the two  strategies. 

Characteristics of hunter-gatherers like the Comanche and Blackfoot included limited food resources, low member numbers, egalitarianism, lack of food storage facilities, and no possibility of accumulating surpluses. Status position in these groups arose (by the very nature of  hunter-gatherer life-style) from achievement and personal characteristics. Consequently status achievement were open to all males. In these circumstances, assert the authors, personal and private drug-induced visions were of great importance They could not be alienated from the individual or transferred through sale or inheritance, and they legitimized personal abilities and achievement.

In a few Plains Indian societies which were predominately horticultural, the vision quest had a different character. These groups possessed relatively large populations, formal leadership, stable food supplies, and social structures with co-operative and property-owning groups.  Not surprisingly, hereditary perogatives and wealth were important. Vision quests did not disappear, but only special standardized visions found acceptability, and only certain individuals could experience them.  In the Omaha tribe, for example membership in the powerful Buffalo Society required a standardized vision. Devices existed which created a particular ‘set’ of associations surrounding the consumption of mescal bean. Only members of wealthy families became exposed to this ‘set’ of associations. This helped ensure the ‘right’ candidates received the politically correct vision.

Use of mescal bean faded among Plains Indians and other group following the arrival of Europeans, in a similar way as it had earlier with people of the Lower Pecos. That is, the consumers vanished; lost again to ethnic cleansing.  As the United States Government forced more and more of the indigenous population onto reservations often far from their homelands, it became increasingly difficult for Plains Indian groups to obtain mescal bean. Finally mescal bean use ceased, and people from some of the groups who formerly consumed mescal bean, turned instead to using peyote (Lophophora williamsii ) in a religious setting.


In conclusion, I hoped by studying mescal bean in addition to pituri I might be able to highlight missing possibilities: what was done or not  done by one or other of the two drug-using societies. Or conversely, what might—must—have taken place in each society yet went unrecorded by white observers.  What made this assessment possible was as the contextual parallels between the Pecos River people and pituri-using Australian Aborigines.To recapitulate, both groups were desert-dwelling,  hunter-gatherers with sparse and isolated populations. For both, their socially-sanctioned drug use pre-dated European settlement by thousands of years. Both socially sanctioned drugs were toxic and in both communities, (but for different reasons) European contact terminated consumption of their drug. 

I am not claiming here that mescal bean and pituri accounts could or should reveal similarities in the ways the host countries used the two drug, or culturally envisionaged them; or controlled their use; or traded and distributed the two drugs. Not at all. Even with similarities between them, separate cultures display many differences. My point is the existence of so many contextual parallels identifies the potentials available for drug–using prehistoric, desert-based, hunter-gatherers.   When these potentials appear unexploited,  is it because the data was not picked up?

Details of pituri production and trading are ample, even over half a million square kilometres of desert land; thanks to the inquisitive doctor, mounted policeman, store keeper and others. But other than Cabeza de Vaca’s brief account, nothing remains of a 12 000 history of  producing or harvesting or distributing mescal bean. This is true even for the Plains Indian period when concrete facts were probably still accessible to researchers. This is a pity. The seminal concept of Stone Age Economics by Marshall Sahlins was that, universally, stone age trade differed from that of historic periods.  Sahlins gave two exceptions: one was Aboriginal trading in the psychoactive substance, pituri. This, claimed Sahlins, was more like free-market auctions. Sahlins apparently did not examine other prehistoric drug trade. Consequently it is unknown if the pituri pattern of trading was an aberration or a foreshadowing of the social, political economic changes drug trading brings to industrial societies today.

A record of pharmacognosy activity marks pituri history. Again this is largely absent in the mescal bean account–even in its modern  anthropological context of vision quests. The cultural determinist perspective of those times believed drugs had no effect  human biology unless the users’ culture taught that it did. So it is not suprising that no anthropologists linked mescal bean to the altered state of consciousness in which the vision is situated  However, the anthropology research also creates the idea  that the Plains Indians themselves did not link mescal bean use to visions to any significant degree. I think the latter is unlkely. Soon after the ancient population settled on the Lower Pecos River, they had experimented with their local environment to find a drug which would profoundly alter consciousness (Weston La Barre and Richard Evens Schultes). Given the toxicity of mescal bean, many deaths probably occurred during this early period. This must have ensured a strong learning curve and search for moderating actions or antitodes to mescal bean. The poisonous Ungnadia specio, found in both the ritual basket and throughout the archaeological sites may have acted as an antitode to the toxic bean rather than being a dart (arrow) poison as someone suggested.

But in other fields mescal bean activity bequeths a greater horde of riches than do the reports on pituri. Consider the evidence: the existence of drug-related shamanism in the Siberian homeland from which people had migrated to Pecos River; the 12 000-10 000 years presence of mescal bean presence in the archaeological excavations in Pecos;  the cave paintings widely believed to represent shaman-assisted hunting; and the fact that after invadors wiped out Pecos River people, Plains Indians observers record mescal- bean based visions and the role thay played in the achievement of authority and status; all these establish that drug use effected social, religious, and political contexts for millenia.  Although mescal bean was very toxic and probably caused some deaths, for a change this is drugs as ‘the good guys’ , their use helping populations to achieve life-enriching goals.

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Among the remains of ancient thought and deed which the dry conditions of the Pecos caves preserved, a globular twined basket (woven shut) almost shouts ‘ritual activity’. This useful archaeological term implies that the activities or objects in question were used in ‘special ways’ not intrinsic to their everyday nature. For example, finding bread and a gold cup in a special niche in a Catholic Church correctly implies that  the bread’s significance lies far beyond the usual relief of hunger, that consuming the bread acted out spiritual  or non-material values.

 When forcefully opened, the basket revealed sticks of red pigment,, mescal bean, the toxic Mexican Buck-eye seed (Ungnadia specio) and 10 halves of rodent lower left mandibles: plus one rodent lower right mandible, and some miscellaneous items. Rodent jaws, left or right, are intrinsically unnecessary for either painting or altering consciousness So sequestering them together clearly points to ritual activity. At some ancient time, one or more individuals gathered these things together, intending to manipulate them somehow, and speak to spiritual beings about their peoples’ anxieties and need for productive hunts.  


 Shamanism left no smoking gun in Pecos caves. But the cumulative evidence is striking. It leads to accepting shamanism as a more logical  explanation for events than any other. There is the Pecos  peoples’ descent from their drug/shaman/hunting complex in the Siberian past;  the cave paintings delineating bizarre creatures in exultant poses; impaled deer; and mescal bean sometimes streaming like exhaust gases from flying figures. There is the fact that mescal bean (sometimes half-cooked) appears in every layer of the archaeological sites for about 12 000 years; the tremendous social and physical effort these paintings cost the cave inhabitants; and the number of reputable scholars and other observers who endorse the paintings as portraying shamanistic scenes.

 If this is true, the connection between the drug and the spiritual endured through  what seems like an encyclopedia of human history.Pecos people linked the two more than five millennia before the build-up of Mesopotamian civilizations. When Zoroaster, Jesus Christ, Buddha and Mohamed began their ministries, mescal bean had long been intrinsic to the getting of wisdom and spiritual guidance in part o North America. Visionary shamanism was the style of leadership in Pecos when Moses led the Jews from Egypt. Shamanism in Pecos ceased only when Spanish settlers from Mexico decimated  the Pecos population, virtually the same moment in time (1588) as Elizabeth l of England  demolished the Spanish Amada

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There are more than 44 caves with paintings, and new ones have been recorded within living memory. The paintings are striking, especially the polychrome panoramas. These exist roughly along the same undulating, horizontal plane, sometimes more that 50 yards in length. See previous post. A street scene comes to mind, but one that is a phantasmagoria, in which strange participants gaze outwards at the viewer. There are people, deer, and cougars. Towering above both, are monumental, roughly rectangular shapes, like aberrant doors or ironing boards. Many have tiny thin arms and small, stumpy legs, the latter resembling those on upholstered chairs. None have human heads or features. In fact some have no heads at all. Others—still faceless—sport small-scale floppy rabbit ears, small birds’ heads, horns or antlers.

‘Anthropomorphic’ is the technical term for figures which mix human and animals features, but this word seems inadequate here. It lacks reference to the inanimate shapes which are so strikingly combined here with human and non-human animals. In their right hand these ‘creatures’ (as I prefer to name them) carry hunting weapons: atalatls (or dart throwers) plus supplies of darts. The left grasps short sticks or wands which terminate in globular shapes. Hairy draped objects fall across some arms; others sport bracelets; some figures wear feathered necklaces. There are deer in flight, many pierced by darts. These figures and the connection with hunting are the focal point of all paintings of this period. (Newcomb 1969).

The artists employ four colours only: red and dark red; black and, very sparingly, a mustard like-ochre. Most figures are solid colours with a narrow contrasting edge; red and black form the common oppositions; altogether an elegant look. A feeling of ascending momentum pervades the murals. A few creatures appear suspended in mid-air with crescents of red dots below their feet . See small figure in upper middle of the illustration in the last post. Some shamanic figures are actually flying upwards or streaking across the sky, streams of red dots in their wake like exhaust gases. Besides these spectacular motifs, less startling ones also convey the impression of upward movement. Many creatures have upraised arms like preachers addressing their flock, while other shapes taper sharply downwards, suggesting ascension. Within this general outline, the shamanic forms show a degree of variation.

Just when the paintings began is a mystery. Cave art has a limited life span; several Pecos paintings which vibrated with colour 80 years ago appear very faint today. The earliest paintings still in existence now probably went up on the limestone cave walls around the time people laboured over the Great Pyramid in Egypt, or heaved and sweated, dragging upright the megaliths of Stonehenge in England. That is, about 4500 BP. The last vestiges of art only narrowly preceded the coming of the railway to Texas in 1881 (Newcomb 1967 )

This stretch of time encompassed four distinct styles. What I have described above is the earliest of the four—the so-called ‘Pecos River Style’ dated 4 500 to 3 200 B.P.. W.W. Newcomb, at the time Professor of Anthropology at the University of Texas , and a specialist in North American Indian cultures, discussed some interpretations of the ‘Pecos River Style’ murals in his book The Rock Art of Texas Indians (1967) co-authored with Forrest Kirkland. Newcomb agreed with the suggestion made in 1958 by an earlier observer, T.N. Campbell, that the anthropomorphic figures were shamans, possibly ancient representatives of Indian religious fraternities.

Newcomb noted that every element in the paintings could be interpreted in these terms. For example, the red dots in the painting may represent mescal beans which are red. Newcomb suggests the custom of painting shelter walls may have began when a shaman emerged from a trance and attempted to visualize his dreams in a painting. Perhaps a spirit figure ordered to the shaman to paint the cave walls. At first the paintings may have belonged to just one or two shaman fraternities, but eventually the custom became a popular or perhaps an essential one. Ultimately the practice waned for some reason. It may be that new rituals developed and displaced the old. Or internal changes in the societies made painting obsolete or even forbidden. (Newcomb(. P.65-79)

Newcomb suggests that the paintings of the murals took place regularly, perhaps in the cold of winter, or alternatively, timed to some seasonal event such as the harvest time of various plant foods or the occasion of communal hunts. The latter situations would ensure the plethora of food necessary to support a larger than normal gathering of people.  Such displays of ancient rituals and power must have inspired and exalted others shamanS, Newcomb believes, and reconciled them to the hardship of their brief lives.

 The anthropologists Solveig Turpin who has spent decades exploring and writing about the Lower Pecos people expresses similar ideas about the emotional impact of these rituals, as enabling Pecos shamans to transcend human life—to die and be reborn; to intercede for people; to take animal shape and influence the hunt to predict the future and be the keeper of the past (Turpin )

The social costs involved in producing the Pecos River Style murals must have been considerable in terms of time and effort. Collecting, and grinding the four colours alone took a toll. Additionally he pigments required addition of some binding substance, possibly extracted from the hooves of members of the deer family. Even the act of painting required more than the usual effort because many figures were solidly in-filled with colour. To achieve this on the uneven limestone surfaces, paint had to be laid down thickly, and carefully worked into the nooks and crevices. Also, scaffolding was essential as many murals stretch far above the reach of the observer while others grace the ceilings. That meant wood had to be found in the desert and hauled up or down the cliff face and then lashed into shape. These are significant costs.

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Pecospeople occupied an arid desert  with a limestone basis. There are flat plains, narrow valleys, canyons and overhanging cliffs. Into the latter the weather gouges deep incisions. As some of these rocky indents face away from the icy northern winds, the  Paleo-Indians favoured  them as shelter. They and their successors  slept and lived there regularly for many millennia—but  always intermittently. As hunter/ gatherers, they had to go where the food was, that week or that month or that season.

 The  extreme dryness of the area,  plus the fact that the sites of occupation were high above ground and possible contamination from occasional flooding, produced peak conditions for the preservation of organic materials: that is leaves, fibres hair, seeds, foods, animal flesh. Normally these decay rapidly and vanish, long  before archaeologists can record their presence and evaluate  possible meaning.  But in the Pecos sites, the dryness preserved  relics of ancient thoughts and deeds. There are mescal bean, gigantic cave paintings, ritual baskets—woven shut—other esoteric objects and ochres. These artefacts, plus other considerations, make a good case for drug –induced visionary shamanism as fact, rather than solely as academic speculation.

 One of the indents—Bonfire Shelter—is particularly informative. About 14 000 years ago  something, or perhaps someone, caused a massive stampede of  many now-extinct Ice Age animals—mammoth, long-horned bison, camel, antelope and more. The rush flowed over the cliff top immediately above Bonfire Shelter, and took the beasts to their deaths below the shelter entrance. Were people involved? Nobody knows for sure. However patterns in the way animal bones were broken do suggests human interference, although archaeologists found no decisive proof. 

But by the next three stampedes over the cliff, at about10 400 B.P.  a firm picture emerges (Adovasio  & Fry 1976) . Carbon 14 dating places together in the one contemporaneous layer the bones of  prehistoric animals, the characteristic tools the Paleo-Indians used to butcher these beasts, and the mescal bean we assume the people employed to fore-shadow and manage the capture of these beasts.  This it is the earliest  place in North America ( possibly in all the Americas)  where we known people  used psychoactive substances.  In subsequent excavations, archaeologists found large quantities of mescal bean at every level of human occupation at  Bonfire shelter, right up to about 1000 before present day. 

Mescal bean litters more than 12 similar rock shelters in the Pecos area and in nearby northMexico. Sometimes it is present in enormous quantities, and sometimes it is partially cooked. Research has reliably and extensively  dated the age of many of these sites and their contents such as fibre, drugs, and ritual paraphernalia.  The Smithsonian Instituate alone conducted 44 Carbon-14 determinations,  and theUniversityofMichiganan earlier series of 11. However, among the many shelters, only BonfireCaveand one other sheltered Paleo-Indian big-game hunters. Occupation of the other caves by later ‘Archaic’ Indians  began  slightly later, around 9 000 B. P.

Much changed in the social and environmental areas of  Pecos in the following  10 000  years. Although mescal bean use continued, big-game animals vanished with the retreat of the Ice Age, and fear of starvation replaced fear of large and savage beasts. Deer became the principle prey. But such was the aridity of the desert, the population were forced to turn to mice, rabbits, fish, and birds to obtain most of their  protein; people even ground down bone and ate it. Over time, new groups of hunter/ gatherers with different cultural histories entered the desert area. The influence of neighbouring groups ebbed and flowed. Alterations in hunting technology took place: from spear thrower and dart to bows and arrows and, much later, to rifles. Evidence appears of use of two, possibly three, drugs  in addition to mescal bean: first, Mexican buckeye seed (Ungnadia speciosa) and later two hallucinogens, peyote (Lophophora williamsii) and a species of the Datura genus.  

It all came to an end for the Pecos people about 1590 when the Spanish crossed the Rio Grande and penetrated the Pecos area. They did not remain  long. The difficult terrain, dearth of minerals, lack of arable land and sparse population drove the Spaniards further east or west. Nevertheless, their brief tenure destroyed thePecos population. Some individuals were taken as slaves; some died of disease, some of starvation; others lost their lives in warfare or indirectly due to  the destruction of their social system. In a sense, it was not use of mescal bean which ended in thePecos community, it was the community itself which died out,  

This is the bare bones of the story. There is more. The next post describes the 10 000 year old link between mescal bean use and the spiritual guidance and help shamanism provided thePecos people.


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Controversy has arisen concerning the spectre of prehistoric ‘drug’ use despite ample evidence of the ritual and medicinal importance of such psychoactive plants in many Indian cultures in theNew World. Politically correct or not, the use of these plants was part and parcel of shamanistic ritual in theLower Pecosas elsewhere in the hunter-gatherer world.                                                                                                                   

www. texasbeyondhistory (UniversityofTexa at Austin)

My pituri research delighted me. I had identified something previously unsuspected (by non Aboriginal people) about Aboriginal culture: the pharmacognostic skills Aboriginal people displayed with the drug pituri, its plant basis, and its effects on human physiology.  Simultaneously, this provided a new dimension for thinking about Aboriginal exploitation of  land and  flora, and the mechanisms of Aboriginal  trade.  In  1983 the Universityof Sydneypublished my pituri research as a monograph entitled This Precious Foliage: A Study of the Aboriginal Psycho-active Drug Pituri. 

Given this, I felt confident that anthropology and pharmacognosy were not  mutually exclusive. I could continue in this field, and, if necessary, deal with academic opposition by mounting a persuasive claim that  the  Department of Anthropology was too narrow in its approach.  So I turned to two other examples of prehistoric drug use. In both cases, white observers singled out for notice among the jumble, the blood and the confusion of colonization, native use of psychoactive drugs.

During researching pituri, I had read Peter Furst’s book  Hallucinogens and Culture (1976). It drew my attention to the people of the Lower Pecos River in Texas.  What particularly  took my interest were the similarities between Pesos people and Australian Aborigines. Both were desert-dwelling  hunter- gatherers with sparse populations; both consumed  a local psychoactive substance;  both drugs were toxic with similar effects on human beings;  for both communities their socially-sanctioned drug use considerably pre-dated European ettlement;  And in both communities, (but for different reasons) European contact terminated consumption of their  favoured drug.  

Because of these parallels, I decided to collate all available information on Pecos drug use and contrast it with Aboriginal consumption with pituri. I though this migh  highlight missing events in one or other of the early colonial records of the two drug-using societies.  What was done in one society and not in the other perhaps ,or conversely, what might—must—have taken place in each society yet went unrecorded by white colonialists.


 Climate changes experienced in the Old World during the last Ice Age account for Ice Age people settling in what is now Texas.  Falling sea levels in the Bering Strait  between Siberia and Alaska created a land bridge between  north-east Asia and north America.  Probably before 15 000 B.P (that is Before the Present)  people from Siberia on the Asia side began spreading,  inch by inch, and mile by mile, across the  newly exposed land. Gradually, these ‘Paleo-Indians’ entered a New World, teeming with birds, animal and plants, with great rivers and soaring mountains, but, so far as is presently  known, devoid of human beings.

The cultural baggage the travellers carried with them was what they and their forebears had known and lived with in the Northern Hemisphere  of the Old World. Three components were significant:  Both peoples practiced hunter-gatherer way of life in which stalking and killing mega fauna supplied most of their food. Secondly, Ice-Age hunters turned to shamansfor their  emotional and spiritual needs.  Finally, sacred narcotic or hallucinogenic plants enabled the shamans to contact or ‘channel’ spirit beings–gods, images and animal spirits. These spirits provided advice and guidance on hunting and other issues. 

In 1970 Professor Richard Evans Schultes, at that time Director of Harvard’s Botanical Museum and the foremost scholar in ethno-pharmacology  got together with Weston La Barre, a leading scholar in the anthropology and psychology of religion. They believed that the newly arrived Ice-Age Siberian migrants in northernAmerica would have soon set about identifying  local psychoactive substances in  the unfamiliar environment.   This must have occurred, they argued, for the incomers to maintain their belief system and way of life: to facilitate shamans in entering  trance states, to see and contact spirits to manipulate the animal world, to advise and influence others, and  cure social and physical ills. (Furst 1976:2)

That is what happened with one small band of Paleo-Indian hunters and food gatherers. They moved into, and onto, what is now known as the Lower Pecos River area in Texas, near that State’s border with northeast Mexico. Probably soon after their arrival, the group identified a local psychoactive substance. This was the poisonous, dark red, seed of the Texas Mountain Laurel bush (Sophora secundiflora),  known as mescal bean  or the Texas Mountain Laurel. (N.B. this is not mescaline)  This plant belongs to the Pea family, and it is native to the  vast  Chihuahuan Desert in North Mexico andTexas.

Because mescal bean has no social or economic importance today,  little on-going research  about the drug occurs. In 1957 (p. 708) the anthropologist  La Barre described mescal bean as ‘a violent and dangerous substance’- a description both graphic and accurate. Chemically, its active ingredient, cytisine, is a ‘cousin’ of nicotine and it effects human physiology in an  extremely similar manner. Toxic effects include:

nausea and vomiting, dilation of the pupils, tachycardia [excessive rapidity and irregularity of the heart-beat] followed by dizziness, mental confusion, muscular incoordination and weakness, and convulsions; respiratory paralysis may occur leading to death by paralysis (Martindales Extra Pharmacopoeia p1746)  

From this technical pharmacological description,  mescal bean  is not a ‘true’ hallucinogen; that is, it does not  invariably  produced hallucinations; however, some observers of mescal bean  consumption dispute this. Nevertheless, one way or another,  mescal bean certainly alters consciousness. The apparent pay-off  for consuming this drug lay not only in  the experience of intoxication, but in the drug’s capacity to produce, or aid in producing, the visions necessary for shamanic rituals and  ceremonies.



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