Native Californians Got High on Plants and Painted Cave Art, Study Says

This is the first physical evidence for the ingestion of hallucinogens at a rock art site.
Derya Ozdemir
The cave art in Pinwheel Cave vs. Datura flowerRick Bury, Melissa Dabulamanzi

California has a long history of making psychedelics rock art, both in prehistoric and musical sense. Researchers had evidence early native Californians used certain wild flora to got high and enter trance states; however, the why and how of it wasn't clear until a research published Monday pointed towards an answer situated in a curious place: the ceiling of a cave painting.  

The new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reports that a cave with a pinwheel image painted by native Californians centuries ago depicts the first conclusive proof of hallucinogen usage at a rock art site.


Visitors of this painted cave took hallucinogens in group settings

The international research team wrote that they've found 400-year-old chewed-up quids of datura, a flower with psychoactive properties, stuffed into the cracks of the ceiling of a sacred cave, which was dubbed Pinwheel Cave after the swirling bright red painting on its ceiling, Inverse reports.

Native Californians Got High on Plants and Painted Cave Art, Study Says
The cave art in Pinwheel Cave, visually enhanced. Source: Devlin Gandy

This painting might represent a datura flower, which unfurls in a pinwheel shape at night. The researchers think that the site might have been a spot for group ceremonies where datura was used by native Californians to induce trance states and "to gain supernatural power for doctoring, to counteract negative supernatural events, to ward off ghosts, and to see the future or find lost objects."

They painted rock art after getting high

The researchers made a three-dimensional analysis of the quids, and according to their results, they were chewed potentially inside the cave and under the paintings. Other cave pictures show “transmorphic figure having antennae, dichoptic eye orbits, and an elongated body with four appendages each with three fingers/toes.”

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Further research revealed the presence of hallucinogenic compounds in the quids, and it was then confirmed that the fibers in the quids came from the datura flower. Since the plant is toxic, researchers think that the quids were ingested by up to 10 people, National Geographic reports.

The researchers wrote in the paper, "Rather than the art depicting what is seen in trance, the Pinwheel instead is likely a representation of the plant causing the trance. Instead of a shamanic self-depiction, the transmorph may represent an insect such as the hawkmoth, who consumes nectar from the datura flower before coming under the influence of its effects, thus exhibiting behavior analogous to those consuming datura in the cave."