There is a cave in California, north of Santa Barbara, that contains a painting of a red spiral form. It looks something like a multiarmed tentacle creature or organic symbol. The 500-year-old image in what has been named ‘Pinwheel cave’ was created by Native American tribes and its meaning has not be established, until research published recently. The evidence shared by archaeologist David Robinson at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK argues that the red pinwheel is a depiction of the petals of the Datura flower. Bundles of this hallucinogenic plant, tucked into crevices of the same cave, date from 1530 to 1890 – proving that the hallucinogen was still used in rituals under Spanish, Mexican and American rule. The connection between image and experience was arguable until, using “mass spectrometry”, they found a chemical mixture similar to Datura.
Indigenous people from California are known to have used the plant. The Chumash people call it Momay, a personification of a supernatural grandmother figure while the Tübatulabal call the flower Mo mo ht, referring to a man who was transformed into a flowering plant. Datura, which can be fatally poisonous if over consumed, can also cause trance states and hallucinations. It has been linked to spiritual practices from [what is now called] California to Texas. The painting demonstrates the role of art itself in Datura rituals, perhaps as a guide to understanding the experiences they were about to take part in. The flower unravels, as demonstrated in the image, at dusk and the “transmorphic” picture may represent taking the Datura.
This is not the first time that a link between cave painting and psychoactive plants has been made. A number of archaeologists have argued that the earliest cave paintings depict the ritualistic use of hallucinogenic plants. There is the shamanic figure covered in many miniature mushrooms forms from in cave in the Algerian Sahara, that Terence McKenna argued was one of the earliest depictions of hallucinogenic ritual, dated to 7000 BC. The research helps cement the idea that art and psychoactive ritual have a long and very fruitful history.
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