Mon. Sep 26th, 2022
This red image of a pinwheel (left), which is about 500 years old, may represent the unfolding petals of a thorn flower (right).
enlarge This red image of a pinwheel (left), which is about 500 years old, may represent the unfolding petals of a thorn flower (right).

Rick Bury and Melissa Dabulamanzi

In a cave in Southern California, archaeologists recently found ancient bundles of hallucinogenic plants tucked into crevices in the low ceiling near a painting that might represent a flower of the same plant, called datura. The painted images may have been a visual aid to help people understand the rituals they experienced in the cave.

Chew on this

Archaeologist David Robinson of the University of Central Lancashire and his colleagues describe the bundles of leaves and stems tucked into the vaulted ceiling of Pinwheel Cave in California. The five-armed pinwheel from which the cave takes its name is painted red up close, accompanied by a bizarre-looking figure with antennae, eyes pointing in different directions, and a long body. Archaeologists named it the Transmorph, perhaps because it wouldn’t match anything else they tried. Based on radiocarbon data from the beams, people placed them in the nooks and crannies of the room over several centuries, from about 1530 to 1890.

That corresponds to the age of charcoal from nearby chambers in the cave, where people left traces of more mundane activities: cooking meat, grinding seeds and nuts, and making stone projectile points. Whatever rituals took place in Pinwheel Cave, they were not hidden or separated from everyday life.

Using a technique called mass spectrometry, Robinson and his colleagues studied the chemical makeup of four of the beams and found the compounds scopolamine and atropine — the same chemical mixture found in datura. The Chumash people of California call the plant momay and see it as the embodiment of a supernatural grandmother figure. To the Tübatulabal it is mo mo hta man who later turned into the flowering plant.

Datura can be a deadly poison if you eat too much of it; however, take just the right amount and you will experience vivid hallucinations and a trance-like state. Under a scanning electron microscope, the plant fibers in 14 of the Pinwheel Cave bundles matched other samples of the genus datura† (Robinson and his colleagues examined another bundle, which was found to contain yucca, an edible desert plant.)

The microscopic examination also revealed that the ends of the bundles had been crushed and matted together, and some even had teeth marks left in them. Obviously, people would have chewed on these bundles of thorn leaves and stems before tucking them into nooks and crannies around the room. That matches historical accounts of Chumash and Tübatulabal people occasionally eating parts of the thorn apple plant for other rituals. Sometimes the goal can be to heal a physical wound; other times it could be supernatural protection, help finding a lost item or seeing into the future, or an extra burst of power for a hunt.

And at Pinwheel Cave, it appears that people were chewing the thorn cone bundles beneath a painted image of the plant itself.

Under the influence

For the record, when people use a hallucinogen as part of a religious or spiritual ritual (as opposed to just for fun), anthropologists refer to the substance as a entheogen† Datura has been a popular entheogen in many cultures on different continents, including groups of people in what is now the western United States, from California to Texas. And in the western US, thorn apple flowers have popped up in artwork from various cultures, along with depictions of hawkmoths, pollinating the hallucinogenic flowers.

Prior to its discovery at Pinwheel Cave, archaeologists had found no clear evidence that humans actually used datura at any of the sites where that artwork was kept on cave walls or under rock shelters. That’s part of what makes the Pinwheel so interesting. The cave paintings, combined with the bundles of thorns, suggest that art played a part in some of the rituals where people used datura for trances and visions.

When a thorn apple bud opens into a flower, the five petals unfold in a spiral that resembles the five-armed pinwheel in Pinwheel Cave almost exactly. And Robinson and colleagues suggest that the Transmorph, with its antennae and its strange insect-like eyes, could actually be a hawkmoth, the insect that does most of the work pollinating thorn apple plants.

Groups like the Chumash and the Tübatulabal, and their ancestors, had traditional stories to explain why datura had the power to cause visions, but they also understood the more pragmatic realities of the plant’s life cycle.

Of course, pollination is a bit of a dangerous job if your food of choice is laced with scopolamine. As Robinson and colleagues explained, the moth “consumes nectar from the thorn apple flower before coming under its effects, thus exhibiting behavior analogous to those consuming cave datura.” In other words, the illustration on the cave ceiling may have served as a visual guide to help people understand how the rituals worked and what they came to experience.

A story of survival

However, what’s really important about Pinwheel Cave is what it tells us about resilience. People lived and practiced datura rituals in the cave long before the first European settlers arrived in the area. The evidence suggests that life and ritual at the site continued for several centuries during Spanish colonization, through Mexican rule, and eventually its incorporation into the Americas. That’s an enormous amount of cultural and political turmoil in a fairly short period of time.

Robinson and his colleagues used portable X-ray fluorescence to study the layers of paint on the ceiling of Pinwheel Cave. They found that the pinwheel—probably the thorn apple flower—had been repainted and touched up many times over the centuries. Generations of people had perpetuated it, and generations of people had looked up to it as they chewed on bundles of thorn apple and slipped into the world of visions.

PNAS2020 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2014529117 (About DOIs).

By akfire1

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