Rock Art and Drugs

Klaus Wellmann

New Scientist, 1978, pp. 951-953

[951] A remarkable development is taking place at the hitherto neglected intersection of North American. Archaeology and native American art. At long last North America is discovering its immense legacy of ancient (and some not so ancient) Indian rock paintings and carvings which are extant at 15000 sites throughout the continent, and which span a temporal continuum of about 7000 years. The activities, largely unheralded in the past, of dozens of individual researchers and of a few organizations are beginning to alert the interested public to the presence of a vast, national treasure of inestimable cultural significance. Most notable of the active organizations are the American Rock Art Research Association, founded in 1974, and the Canadian Rock Art Research Associates, which has existed since 1969.

One tangible result of these endeavours has been the recent discernment "of the, close bonds that tie, so many North American Indian rock drawings to the ancient body of beliefs and practices subsumed under the collective designation of "shamanism". Indeed, Weston La Barre, an anthropologist at Duke University, has cogently remarked that, generally aboriginal religion throughout the New World represents a kind of "Mesolithic fossil", little changed except in the most highly developed native societies, and that the religion in even these advanced cultures, still betrays its shamanic origin. One important corollary of this conclusion is La Barre’s observation that shamanism, firmly rooted as it is in ecstatic and visionary experiences, appears "culturally programmed for an interest in hallucinogens and other psychotropic drugs".

Strong circumstantial evidence indicates that some of the finest examples of ancient rock art on this continent reflect shamanistic involvement in rituals and experiences related to the taking of drugs. It applies especially to the highly accomplished polychrome pictographs of the now extinct Chumash Indians (Figures 4 and 5), found in small sandstone caves in the trackless coastal mountains near Santa Barbara, California, and to the less elaborate rock paintings of their neighbors, the Yokuts of the southern Sierra Nevada. Sun or disc-like designs are a constantly recurring theme in these drawings, most of which were probably made during the 1000 years before the initiation of the Spanish mission period in 1772.

 Wellmann 1978
Fig. 3 - Lower Pecos River painting. Stylized shamans, painted
in red and black, from Panther Cave, Seminole Canyon, Texas.
Life forms constitute a second category of motifs commonly encountered in the rock art of the Chumash and Yokuts Indians. Some are human, others animal-like; but just as many appear so bizarre that they defy any further attempts at classification. Contiguity of shapes and over-painting occur, but nearly as often the figures appear to float through space by themselves, with a little obvious mutual interaction.

 Wellmann 1978
Fig. 3 - Lower Pecos River painting. Stylized
shamans, painted in red and black, from
Panther Cave, Seminole Canyon, Texas.
The anthropologist Alfred L Kroeber, as long ago as 1925, suspected that the art of the Chumash, including their polychrome cave paintings, was related to the Jimsonweed or toloache cult. The various Jimsonweed species (Datura stramonium, D. meteloides and others) are members of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family. The plants are foul-smelling annual herbs with large, white, [952] five-lobed, trumpet-shaped flowers and broad, ovate, shallowly lobed leaves (Figure 2). They grow in profusion near the pictograph sites of both the Yokuts and the Chumash.

The roots, stems or leaves of the Datura plant were soaked in water by the Indians in much of southern California. As Jimsonweed contains alkaloids such as scopolamine and atropine, the resulting brew induces visions. With higher doses, amnesia and coma will ensue, narcotic effects that the Indians made use of when setting fractures or treating wounds.


Quest for a dream helper

In a recent account of Chumash religion and mythology, Georgia Lee relates that Datura was regarded as the source of all supernatural power and was relied on in the quest for a dream helper or guardian spirit. Indeed, the plant was personified by the Chumash for whom it represented one of the central characters, the old woman Momoy, in some of the most significant myths of the tribe.

Many ethnographic accounts exist of how the toloache ceremony was practiced among the Yokuts. In essence, the, Jimsonweed ritual was an initiation ceremony for adolescents of both sexes, conducted outdoors and away from the village, at the conclusion of the winter season. A period of fasting preceded the rite and must have enhanced the desired hallucinogenic effect-of the drug. Birds and animals, as well as other-worldly beings were among the objects visualized in this quest for a spirit helper or supernatural being.

The proposed. links between the toloaque cult and the rock paintings of the Chumash and Yokuts are tentative and conjectural. Yet both the vision-inducing ritual and the graphic depiction of strange and transcendental creatures are obvious attempts to gain some measure of control over the threatening forces of the unseen world. Among the Yokuts, all things experienced during the trance were widely discussed by the participants and bystanders of the rites. The shamans, or others in the community, may well have felt motivated, on occasion, to paint what had been revealed. Many shamans among the Yokuts had private caches in a cliff or rock piles where they stored their sacred ceremonial paraphernalia, and the available ethnographic accounts indicate that pictograph sites were the localities most favoured for this purpose.

A connection between ancient rock paintings and mind-expanding drugs derived from plants has also been postulated to lie at the confluence of the Pecos River with the Rio Grande in southwestern Texas and in the adjacent part of the Mexican state of Coahuila. Dozens of rock-shelters covered with broad, multicoloured paintings, made by Indians of the archaic period antedating the birth of Christ, have been found here. The panels are dominated by tall, stylised anthropomorphic figures adorned with horned, antlered or feathered headdresses and displaying various regalia associated with cults, as well as weapons, among them atlatls or spearthrowers (Figure 1).

T. N. Campbell, in 1958, was the first to suggest that the Pecos River paintings represent shamans engaged by mescal bean cult activities. The mescal bean (Sophora secundiflora), also known as Texas mountain laurel, is en evergreen shrub and a member of the Leguminosae family. It is native to the southwestern United States and parts of Mexico. Thus far, seven quinolizidine alkaloids have been identified in these seeds, the major one being cytisine, a nicotine-like constituent. Recent pharmacological investigations by G. M. Hatfield and his colleagues indicate that mescal beans cannot be classified as having genuine hallucinogenic properties. But these same researchers suggest that the trance-like state actually observed in historic North American Indian groups can be, attributed to the combined effects of a lack of sleep and sustenance, forced exertion lasting for many hours, and the non-hallucinogenic toxic effects of the mescal beans ingested.

Mescal bean seeds were found in eight caves or shelters attributed to the same archaic tradition that produced these pictographs. At one site, near Comstock, Texas, they were associated with a mass of red pigment, the main colour employed in the paintings. Also present there were 11 halves of rodent mandibles and other objects implying ritual use of the mescal bean. Specimens of peyote (Lophophora williamsii), a spineless cactus with hallucinogenic properties, have also been recovered from some ancient sites in the same region.

The mescal bean cult, as practiced during historic timer by tribes of the central and southern Great Plains, was frequently linked with deer and with hunting. Its participants displayed weapons while they danced and used various cult objects (such as feathers, animal skins and gourd rattles) during the act. Many of the historic dancers painted their bodies in imitation of animals, and some society initiates received power for curing through animals. As T. N. Campbell and especially W. W. Newcomb jr. have emphasised, one can spot conceptual analogues, if not actual replicas, of all these traits in the Pecos River paintings. The cougar images in the ancient drawings can be explained as potential sources of supernatural aid and even the purpose of the rodent jaws already mentioned suggested by the use of garfish jaws in the modern cult.

Rock drawings constitute the most abundant and, at the same time, the most persistently neglected archaeological and artistic document of the American Indian. They are but one of the iconographic riches that remain to be explored.