Note on the Discovery of Teonanacatl

Jean Basset Johnson

American Anthropologist, vol. 42, pp. 549-550, 1940

[549] In a recent issue of the Anthropologist, Dr. LaBarre has erroneously given credit to Mr. R.E. Schultes for the discovery of teonanacatl, the narcotic mushroom of the Aztecs.1 Mr. Schultes states in his published identification of the mushrooms merely that he "learned" of their use by the Masatecs of Oaxaca.2 In the interest of stricter accuracy, the present writer feels it to be essential that the actual facts of the discovery of this interesting narcotic should be known.

During Easter week, 1936, Mr. R.J. Weitlaner of Mexico City spent four days in Huautla de Jimenez, Oaxaca, where he was engaged in linguistic investigation, and where he obtained for the first time the full Mazatec calendar. Mr. Weitlaner framed from Sr. Jose Dorantes, a Mazatec merchant, of the existence and use of the mushrooms in curative witchcraft and divination. Sr. Dorantes also described his own reactions upon eating three of the mushrooms. Recognizing the mushrooms as teonanacatl, Mr. Weitlaner communicated the news of his discovery to Dr B. P. Reko, who sent the specimens to botanists for identification.

In July, 1938, the writer, accompanying Misses Louise Lacaud, Irmgard Weitlaner, and Mr. Bernard Bevan, spent some weeks in Huautla de Jimenez, charged with continuing the investigations commenced by Mr. Weitlaner, who generously placed his data at our disposal. We were able to collect a considerable amount of data on witchcraft and the use of the mushroom, which are now published.3 While in Huautla, we met Mr. Schultes and Dr. Reko, who were collecting ethno-botanical data and specimens. At that time, and later, when he was preparing his identification of the mushrooms, Mr. Schultes had access to our data, for which he generously gave me credit. Mr. Schuttes did not know of the previous discovery by Mr. Weitlaner, and for this reason failed to mention him in his first paper on teonanacatl.

Dr La Barre’s brief report accompanied another communication, and was based on short, personal communication from Schultes, and was published before Schultes paper appeared.

References to teonanacatl, while not common in literature, are by no means unknown. I append herewith a short bibliography of the more important older works:

W. LaBarre, The Peyote Cult (Yale Publications in Anthropology, Po. 28, New Haven, 1938).

Excellent bibliography on teonanacatl.

Fr. T. de Motolinea, Historia de los Indies de nueva españa (tratado 1, cap. II), p. 23.

Orozco y Berra, Historia antigua y de la conquista de Mexico, tomo III, p. 437.

Fr. B. de Sahagun, Historia de la Nueva España, tomo III, p. 242.

[550] J. de La Serna, Manuel de ministros de Indios (Annales del Museo Nacionales, tomo VI), pp. 303 and 385.

A. Toro, Las Plantas Sagradas de los Aztecos y su influencia sobre el Arte PreCortesiano (23d International Congress of Americanistes, New York, 1928), p. 112.

1) W. LaBarre, Note on Richard Schultes’ "The Appeal of Peyote" (American Anthropologist, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1939), pp. 341-342.

2) R. E. Schultes, Plantae Mexicanae: the Identification of Teonanacatl, a Narcotic Basidiomycete of the Aztecs (Botanical Museum Leaflets, Vol. 7, No. 3, Cambridge, 1939), pp. 37-54.

3) J.B. Johnson, The Elements of Mazatec Witchcraft (Ethnological Studies, No. 9, Gothenborg; 1939), pp. 128-150; Some Notes on the Mazatec (Revista Mexicana de Antropologia, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1939).