Archive for the ‘shamanism’ Category

The Need to Know

Pre-historians and others speculate that people have been consuming mind-altering drugs for thousands of years. In 1995 Andrew Sherratt, at the time Inaugural Professor of Old World Prehistory at Sheffield University stimulated this issue with an authoritative statement. ‘The deliberate seeking of psychoactive experience is likely to be at least as old as anatomically (and behaviorally) modern humans, one of the characteristics of Homo sapiens sapiens’ (Sherratt 1995:33). That is, about 70,000 -50,000 years before the present era.

Sherratt’s ideas are uncommon among anthropologists—my profession. It is true that prehistory, ancient history, archaeology and anthropology are ‘sister’ occupations along the same academic spectrum dealing with human life, but there are different emphases in each. In anthropological theory it is ’Culture’ that is fundamental to human life, certainly not drug consumption. Despite this, I have had a long interest in investigating the near universal practice of altering consciousness. Does it arise from socio-cultural conditioning? Alternatively, could it be an innate drive based on the neuro-physiological structures within the brain?

When I began thinking about these theories, I was already a pharmaceutical chemist in addition to studying anthropology. Both professions deepened my capacity for researching the issue, although from opposing perspectives. The failure of the ‘War on Drugs’ motivated me further.

If two mutually–exclusive causes of a phenomena exist, or appear to, and this conflict remains unresolved, then incoherence and uncertainty results. With the true cause of drug-seeking unknown, plans to control the phenomena will be hit and miss. Or perhaps fail, just as the War on Drugs has. Future directions of phenomena cannot be evaluated nor its costs appraised. Similarly, society should hesitate to condemn the moral fibre of those caught up in the phenomena if the cause of drug seeking is unresolved (Committee on Opportunities in Drug Abuse Research !996).

Examining the prehistoric period is essential to clarifying the issue. If changing consciousness is an innate drive based on neurological brain functions, then this drive must necessarily have been operating soon after, or possibly before, the emergence of anatomically and behaviorally modern man some time prior to 70.000-50000 years before the birth of Christ. If no trace of drug-seeking appears in the prehistoric past, then the chance of socio-cultural conditioning being the trigger for drug seeking becomes much more likely. The latter could have begun at any time, and many times, in humanity’s existence.

Searching the prehistoric world for people choosing to re-orient their attitudes, thoughts, and emotions to the world outside themselves once appeared a dim and formless task. But not today, with 21st century knowledge that anatomically and behaviorally modern man, emerged far earlier than previously believed. There were differences of course between ourselves and newly emerged humanity. They had radically fewer resources: no written languages; probably very little communication with other groups, let alone other races; little exposure to diverse environments. Their short life spans meant less time to accumulate the number of experiences essential in the formation of wisdom and its transmission to future generations.

But prehistoric people were not the primitive, less-than-fully human creatures of cartoons. They had language, made music, could think logically and abstractly. They were no more superstitious than ourselves. We believe in many things most of have never seen: radio waves, the Virgin Birth; the seething mass of molecules which make up the keyboard beneath my fingers. Somebody cleverer and more authoritative than I vouched for these truths. Likewise, prehistoric people also believed in things they did not understand because wise elders held them to be true.


Sherratt, A. 1995. Alcohol and its alternatives: Symbol and substance in pre-industrial cultures. In J. Goodman, P.E. Lovejoy, A. Sherratt (Eds.) Consuming habits: Drugs in history and anthropology. Routledge: London, New York.

Committee on Opportunities in Drug Abuse Research !996 1996. Pathways of Addiction: Opportunities in Drug
Abuse Research. Institute of Medicine. National Academic Pres: Washington

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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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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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