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How hallucinogens shaped prehistoric cave art

Painting in Pinwheel Cave, California. Image by Rick Bury.

The creation of rock art by prehistoric indigenous American people, as part of hallucinogenic experiences, has been revealed for the first time in research involving the University of Strathclyde.

Academics carried out excavations at a cave site in California after discovering a painting thought to represent the flowers of Datura wrightii, a plant historically used for its hallucinogenic properties as part of elaborate community ceremonies.

The most noted usage of Datura in Native California is as part of adolescent initiations, where the root of the plant was processed into a drink for young people in the community. Alongside the painting, researchers also discovered a number of chewed materials, which were almost all found to be a made from Datura.

The research reinforces the link between the ingestion of hallucinogens and the creation of rock art, showing that the art represented the plant itself rather than images from trance. This highlights the deep appreciation of hallucinogenic plants for native Californian people.

The study was led by the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

Dr Matthew Baker, Reader in Chemistry at the University of Strathclyde and co-author of the study, said: “The combination of chemistry and archaeology in this project has truly shown the power of a multidisciplinary approach to uncover new knowledge.

“This was a gripping project and visiting these sites with lead researcher Dr David Robinson of UCLan was truly memorable.”

The findings of the research also suggest that the site was likely to be a communal space in which people would gather on a seasonal basis for hunting, gathering, food preparation, and eating. This shows that the art played a prominent role in the daily lives of all members of the local community.

Dr Robinson, a reader in Archaeology at UCLan, said: “These findings give us a far more in-depth understanding of the lives of indigenous American communities and their relationships, from late prehistoric times right up until the late 1800s. Importantly, because of this research, the Tejon Indian tribe now visits the site annually to reconnect to this important ancestral place.

“The link between hallucinogens and rock art has long been suspected, and this research shows that it was not only a source of creative inspiration for these prehistoric groups of people, but a core tenet of important rituals and community gathering.”