Enlarge /. This red pinwheel image (left), around 500 years old, may show the unfolding petals of a thorn apple blossom (right).
Rick Bury and Melissa Dabulamanzi
In a southern California cave, archaeologists recently found centuries-old bunches of hallucinogenic plants in crevices in the low ceiling near a painting that may depict a flower of the same plant called a thorn apple. The painted pictures could have been a visual aid to help people understand the rituals they experienced in the cave.
Chew on it
University of Central Lancashire archaeologist David Robinson and colleagues describe the bundles of leaves and stems hidden in the domed ceiling of California's Pinwheel Cave. The five-armed wind turbine that gives the cave its name is painted red nearby, accompanied by a bizarre figure with antennas, eyes pointing in different directions, and a long body. Archaeologists have called it transmorph, perhaps because it wouldn't answer anything else they tried. Based on the bundles' radiocarbon dates, people placed them in nooks and crannies of space over several centuries, from around 1530 to 1890.
This corresponds to the age of the charcoal from nearby chambers in the cave, where people have left traces of everyday activities: cooking meat, grinding seeds and nuts, and making stone projectile points. Whatever rituals took place in the windmill cave, they were not hidden or separated from everyday life.
Using a technique called mass spectrometry, Robinson and his colleagues examined the chemical makeup of four of the bundles and found the compounds scopolamine and atropine – the same chemical mixture as thorn apple. The Chumash in California call the plant Momay and see it as the embodiment of a supernatural grandmother figure. For the Tübatulabal it is Mo mo ht, a man who later turned into a flowering plant.
Thorn apple can be deadly poison if you overeat it; However, take just the right amount and you will experience vivid hallucinations and a trance-like state. Under a scanning electron microscope, the plant fibers in 14 of the Pinwheel Cave bundles matched other specimens of the genus Datura. (Robinson and colleagues examined another bundle that contained yucca, an edible desert plant.)
Microscopic examination also showed that the ends of the bundles were compressed and matted, and some even had tooth marks. Apparently people had chewed on those bundles of thorn apple leaves and stems before tucking them into nooks and crannies in the closet. This corresponds to the historical descriptions of the people in Chumash and Tübatulabal, who occasionally eat parts of the thorn apple plant for other rituals. Sometimes the goal might be to heal a physical wound; Other times, it could be supernatural protection, help locating a lost object or a glimpse into the future, or an extra boost of strength for a hunt.
And in the Pinwheel Cave, people seem to have chewed the thorn apple bunches under a painted picture of the plant itself.
Under the influence
When people use a hallucinogen as part of a religious or spiritual ritual (as opposed to just for fun), anthropologists call the substance an entheogen. Thorn apple was a popular entheogen in many cultures on multiple continents, including groups of people in what is now the western United States, from California to Texas. And in the western United States, thorn apple blossoms have appeared in artwork from various cultures, along with images of hawkmoths pollinating the hallucinogenic flowers.
Prior to the Pinwheel Cave discovery, archaeologists had found no conclusive evidence that people were actually using thorn apple in any of the locations where this work of art was kept on cave walls or under rock shelters. That's part of what makes the wind turbine so interesting. The cave paintings, combined with the thorn apple bunches, suggest that art played a role in some rituals in which people used thorn apple for trance and visions.
When a thorn apple bud opens into a flower, its five petals unfold in a spiral that looks almost exactly like the five-armed pinwheel in the pinwheel cave. And Robinson and colleagues suggest that the transmorph, with its antennae and weird beetle-like eyes, might actually be a hawkmoth, the insect that does most of the work of pollinating thorn apple plants.
Groups like the Chumash and the Tübatulabal and their ancestors had traditional stories to explain why Thorn Apple had the power to evoke visions, but they also understood the more pragmatic realities of the plant's life cycle.
Of course, pollination is a slightly dangerous job when the food of your choice is spiked with scopolamine. As Robinson and colleagues explained, the moth "consumes nectar from the thorn apple blossom before it is affected by its effects, thus exhibiting behavior similar to that consumed by thorn apple in the cave." In other words, the figure indicates the cave ceiling could have served as a visual guide to help people understand how the rituals worked and what they wanted to experience.
A story of survival
What is really important about the wind turbine cave, however, is what it says about resilience. The people lived and practiced thorn apple rituals in the cave long before the first European colonizers arrived in the area. The evidence suggests that the life and ritual in this place lasted for several centuries during the Spanish colonization by Mexican rule and eventually by incorporation into America. That is an enormous amount of cultural and political upheaval in a relatively short period of time.
Robinson and colleagues used portable X-ray fluorescence to examine the layers of paint on the ceiling of the wind turbine cave. They found that the wind turbine – probably the thorn apple blossom – had been repainted and touched up many times over the centuries. Generations of people had kept it up, and generations of people had looked at it as they chewed bundles of thorn apple and slipped into the world of visions.
PNAS, 2020 DOI: 10.1073 / pnas.2014529117 (About DOIs).