Centuries Ago, People Tripped Together in Front of This Mesmerizing Cave Art

It's the first clear evidence for the ingestion of hallucinogens at a rock art site.
November 23, 2020, 8:00pm
Rock art in Pinwheel Cave. Image: Devlin Gandy​
Rock art in Pinwheel Cave. Image: Devlin Gandy

A new study reports that a cave decorated with a mesmerizing pinwheel image, painted by Native Californians centuries ago, represents the first definitive proof of hallucinogen consumption at a rock art site. 

Pinwheel Cave, as it is now known, was re-discovered about two decades ago at the Wind Wolves Preserve in the San Emigdio Mountains, though the cave was clearly well-known to generations of Native Californians from the 1300s to the 1700s. 

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In addition to the striking painting on its wall, the site contains dozens of “quids,” which are fibrous bundles that have been chewed and inserted into crevices in the cave ceiling. The rock art and the quids are both connected to the intoxicating effects of the Datura flower, according to researchers led by David W. Robinson, an archaeologist at the University of Central Lancashire who has studied Pinwheel Cave for more than a decade. 

“We cannot speak for the people who took Datura in the cave itself but I can sketch out some of the typical effects,” Robinson said in an email. “The plant often creates a scenario where the person taking it does not remember taking it, and reality can completely change so that they may believe they are in a totally different place. This is why Datura takers always had an attendant to make sure they didn't get up and walk [around] banging into things because they saw a different landscape.”

The Native Californians who ingested the flower’s compounds in the cave may have hallucinated visions of spirit beings, power animals, lost or powerful objects, deceased people or people who lived in distant lands, and even future events, Robinson speculated. 

That being said, Datura is highly toxic and unpredictable, and Robinson warned that nobody should experiment with it. 

Datura, or jimson weed, is a member of the nightshade family,” he noted. “It can be highly toxic so we strongly urge no one to dabble with this dangerous plant.”  

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Robinson and his colleagues were able to detect Datura remnants in the quids, confirming “the use of hallucinogens at a rock art site while calling into question previous assumptions concerning trance and rock art imagery,” according to a study published on Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Specifically, the researchers posit that tripping on hallucinogens and making rock art was a communal practice at this site. A set of theories called the altered states of consciousness (ASC) model, on the other hand, argue some rock art images are representations of hallucinogen-induced visions experienced by shamans who isolated themselves from society during these rituals.

Pinwheel Cave, in contrast, shows signs of substantial communal activity over several generations, the researchers report. 

And that entrancing red pinwheel image? Robinson’s team infers that the pinwheel is a straightforward representation of the Datura flower, rather than a visualization of its hallucinogenic effects.

“The main takeaway is that the evidence at Pinwheel Cave shows that the hallucinogens were taken in a group context, and that the art communicated the ecology of the plant behind the trance rather than the images seen during the trance,” Robinson said. 

“So the art is all about codifying the experience of the effects that the plant creates for the cohesion of the whole society,” he continued. “Rather than being private retreats of male shamans to the exclusion of everyone else, the rock art site was a deeply meaningful place of inclusivity for the entire community.” 

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Remains of quids are visible in a cave crevice on the lower left. Image: David Wayne Robinson

This explanation for the enchanting painting is also supported by the multitudes of quids stowed away in the cave. By studying these ancient chewables with a scanning electron microscope, the researchers were able to detect atropine and scopolamine, the main hallucinogenic compounds of the Datura flower. Further analysis with a 3D microscope revealed that the quids were carefully processed into single “doses” that could be sucked or chewed to release the intoxicating substances.

The unprecedented evidence linking the use of hallucinogens with rock art, exhibited at Pinwheel Cave, will no doubt spark further debate about the creation and purpose of these tantalizing paintings. Native Californians returned to the cave over the course of centuries, even as the region and its peoples experienced successive colonial regimes, implying that this was a significant site of cultural connection—one that still contains many mysteries.

“I'm interested in seeing how the rock art iconography communicated to the local community, how that communication changed through time, and how plants such as Datura played its role in Native history,” Robinson said.