Prehistoric tribes took hallucinogens before painting their caves – ‘Creative inspiration’

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New research led by universities in the UK has uncovered evidence linking prehistoric cave paintings in California and a poisonous flower known for its hallucinogenic properties. According to researchers from the University of Central Lancashire and the University of Southampton, native Californians made use of the Datura wrightii plant in various rituals. And in a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers have proposed rock art was created as part of a hallucinogenic experience.

Dr David Robinson, an archaeology expert at the University of Central Lancashire, said: “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.”

The discovery was made during excavations at a cave site in California after archaeologists uncovered cave paintings of what appeared to be the Datura flower.

Datura, also known as sacred datura or Jimson weed, is native to the southwestern US, where it has a long history of medicinal and religious use.

All parts of the plant contain hazardous levels of toxic alkaloids that can be fatal if consumed.

However, the plant also has a history of being used recreationally as it has been known to induce hallucinations.

Consequently, the plant has also been called “Indian whiskey” by some.

In Native California, the plant has a strong association with adolescent initiations.

Datura’s root was processed into a drink for young members of the community to drink.

At the site where the Datura painting was discovered, the archaeologists also discovered a number of chewed up materials.

These were found to be made from Datura, strengthening link between taking hallucinogenics and cave paintings.

And because the painting represented the flower itself, rather than the visions it induced, the researchers believe the painting shows an appreciation for the flower’s properties.

The researchers also believe the excavated site was used as a communal space for seasonal gatherings.

These gatherings would have included hunts and food gatherings, as well as for eating.

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The findings suggest art played a significant role in the local community’s day-to-day business.

Dr Robinson 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.”

Dr Fraser Sturt, a Professor of Archaeology at the University of Southampton, said: “The results of this project spring from a high interdisciplinary, open and collaborative approach to research.

“In this way, new and improved recording and analytical techniques have helped to reconnect material remains, art, narrative and people across space and time.

“Thus, while the focus is on the hallucinogenic properties of Datura and its role in rock art and community generation, this work also shows that it is one facet of a complex suite of relationships between people, place and the environment.”

Dr Matthew Baker, study co-author and reader in Chemistry at the University of Strathclyde, added: “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 Dave was truly memorable.”

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