Long ago, Indigenous tribes in California lived in caves. And at night, they gazed not at the stars in the sky… but at a bright red painting of a pinwheel and a wide-eyed moth.
Thousands of years later, researchers may have cracked the mystery. The red “pinwheel” has been traced to the psychedelic flower, Datura wrightii, known for its ceremonial use by the Chumash people.
The moth may be a hawk moth which sipped the Datura’s trip-inducing nectar, and thus had a drunken, dance-like flight .
More evidence of ancient psychedelic use is stuck upon the cave ceilings, in the form of quids, or 400-year-old lumps of chewed drugs. These contain scopolamine and atropine, the mind-bending chemicals in the Datura. The study further shows that:
“…the pictographs were probably not self-depictions of shamans in trance but, instead, stock iconographic images drawing upon mythology…”
This is the first evidence of humans taking hallucinogens in a prehistoric cave. But why did our early psychonauts focus on the Datura? Was the flower worshiped, perhaps?
The Magic Flower
Datura was dissolved as a tea called toloache, which young boys drank as a rite of passage. Its hallucinogens would give them access to the “nether realm”. But the flower was also magical in a different way.
Also known as thornapple and jimsonweed, Datura opens its petals only at dusk and dawn, twisting them shut during the day. The red spiral probably shows a Datura flower “waking up”, the researchers said:
“Datura could be taken throughout one’s lifetime for a variety of reasons, including to gain supernatural power for doctoring, to counteract negative supernatural events, to ward off ghosts, and to see the future or find lost objects…”
Nowadays, Datura is kept as a common garden plant, mainly because of their trumpet-shaped flowers. After the flowering season, Datura produces spiky fruits (thus the other name, thornapple).
Yep, a Datura-induced trip can last for as long as 2 days. But beware! As an alkaloid plant, its biggest side effects can be accidental overdose… and death by poison. Every freakin’ part of Datura is toxic.
What Happens if You Eat Datura
Datura wrightii may be a potent psychedelic, but the dangerous side effects far outweigh its magic:
- Slower (or insanely faster) thoughts;
- Lower motivation;
- Eventual depression + anxiety;
- Paranoia, with feelings of a “coming disaster”;
- Time distortion;
- Muscle fatigue;
- Amnesia; and
- Death by poison
So let’s leave the experiments to the cavemen, shall we?
The First Psychonauts?
If Datura was so dangerous, then why did the California cavemen take it, live to tell the tale, and paint it so well on their cave wells? Weren’t they high?
For starters, the artists probably weren’t tripping while drawing, as lead researcher David Robinson told Live Science:
“It’s extremely unlikely because of the debilitating effects of Datura.”
Also, the Indigenous people were probably immune to the flower’s poison, considering that they used Datura in daily life — and not just in rituals.
Archaeologists first stumbled upon the rock paintings in 1999 at Wind Wolves Preserve near Santa Barbara. Workers discovered the red pinwheel and moth painted with ochre, or red clay.
Like Michelangelo’s artwork in the Sistine Chapel, the rock paintings helped the Indigenous people “get in the mood” for their spiritual journey. To them, the Datura’s hallucinogenic power wasn’t just for shamans; it was for everyone who needed it.
“…it may be that the chewing of Datura could have been related to other group ceremonies such as preparation for hunting expeditions.”
Rare Piece of Psychedelic History
Using radiocarbon dating, the cave was revealed to be used from 1600 CE to the tail end of the 1800s. And it wasn’t just for rituals or special occasions. They also found arrow shaft straighteners (which could mean hunting prep), ground seeds (from food storage), and animal bones left over from meals. Fascinating, isn’t it?
Not only did our ancestors use psychedelics; they revered them, and included their magic in daily life. And although we now know Datura to be deadly, its red spiral will definitely burn bright in psychedelic history.
What do you think? Has this discovery changed the way you think about ancient societies?
If you want to learn more about how folks throughout history tripped out, check out Evidence of Ancient Civilisations using Psychedelics!