Hallucinogenic Plants May Be Key to Decoding Ancient Southwestern Paintings, Expert Says

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Dozens of rock art sites in southern New Mexico, recently documented for the first time, are revealing unexpected botanical clues that archaeologists say may help unlock the meaning of the ancient abstract paintings.

“Every one of the sites where we find the tobacco, we also find El Paso ceramics, or we find other kinds of pots…that date generally in that same range.”

Over a swath of the Chihuahuan Desert stretching from Carlsbad to Las Cruces, at least 24 rock art panels have been found bearing the same distinctive pictographs: repeated series of triangles painted in combinations of red, yellow, and black.

A rock art panel found at Dripping Springs, New Mexico depicts abstract triangle motifs. At this panel and others like it, potent wild tobacco was found growing beneath the image. Photograph enhanced with DStretch. (Courtesy L. Loendorf)

A rock art panel found at Dripping Springs, New Mexico depicts abstract triangle motifs. At this panel and others like it, potent wild tobacco was found growing beneath the image. Photograph enhanced with DStretch. (Courtesy L. Loendorf)

And at each of these sites, archaeologists have noticed similarities not just on the rock, but in the ground.61A-gXHiStL._SL250_

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Hallucinogenic plants were found growing beneath the triangle designs, including a particularly potent species of wild tobacco and the potentially deadly psychedelic known as datura.

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Researchers believe that the plants may be a kind of living artifact, left there nearly a thousand years ago by shamans who  smoked the leaves of the plants in preparation for their painting.

“I think there’s a real good chance that they’re using tobacco in large enough amounts that they’re going into altered states of consciousness.”

“I think almost certainly that they’re trancing on this stuff,” said Dr. Lawrence Loendorf, president of the archaeological firm Sacred Sites Research, of the ancient artisans.

Wild tobacco found growing beneath rock art at Dripping Springs, with triangle motifs visible at right. (Courtesy L. Loendorf)

Wild tobacco found growing beneath rock art at Dripping Springs, with triangle motifs visible at right. (Courtesy L. Loendorf)

“I think there’s a real good chance that they’re using tobacco in large enough amounts that they’re going into altered states of consciousness, and I think that’s how [the hallucinogenic plants] are getting there.

“[They’re] getting to those sites because they were used for special ceremonial purposes.”

Wild tobacco bush (Solanum mauritianum)

Wild tobacco bush (Solanum mauritianum)

The region that Loendorf and his colleagues have been exploring was once home to the Jornada Mogollon, a culture of foraging farmers similar to the early Ancestral Puebloans, who occupied the territory from about the 5th to the 15th centuries.

Among the marks the Jornadans left on the land were sophisticated and colorful pictographs, ranging from recognizable plant, animal, and human forms to more abstract patterns.

Triangle motifs were even found on this high rock overhang, at Walt’s Canyon near Carlsbad, where coyote tobacco again was found. (Courtesy L. Loendorf)

Triangle motifs were even found on this high rock overhang, at Walt’s Canyon near Carlsbad, where coyote tobacco again was found. (Courtesy L. Loendorf)

They also crafted painted pottery in signature styles of red, brown, and black, known today as El Paso phase ceramics, which vary by era and design.

Over the past three years, Loendorf and his colleagues have been studying rock art throughout the Jornadans’ range — first at Fort Bliss, then on Bureau of Land Management holdings around Carlsbad, and finally on property owned by New Mexico State University near the town of Dona Ana.

The triangle motifs first showed up at about 20 sites that the team surveyed at Fort Bliss, Loendorf said.

But it was during their second survey — of the lands around Carlsbad — that they noticed tobacco and datura growing under similar pictographs found there…(read more)

Western Digs


One Comment on “Hallucinogenic Plants May Be Key to Decoding Ancient Southwestern Paintings, Expert Says”

  1. […] The Butcher Dozens of rock art sites in southern New Mexico, recently documented for the first time, are […]


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