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Cave Art on Drugs

native americans drug cave painting hallucinogenics

Image by Free-PhotosPixabay 

Scientists have long believed that primeval cave paintings were created under the influence of drugs. Now, for the first time, researchers have found traces of a hallucinogenic plant next to a Californian cave painting, but their results contradict the theory that the image depicts drug induced visions.

A swirl shaped flower, drawn in a single red line, decorates the ceiling of the Pinwheel Cave in California (close to Santa Barbara, USA). Next to it, scientists from New Mexico, USA, found plant remains, that had been pressed into cracks of the ceiling. Using a technique called liquid chromatography, the researchers were able to detect hallucinogenic compounds and identify the species: Datura wrightii. The plant grows in the south west of the northern American continent, it was commonly used by Native American tribes.

The origin

One of the most controversial theories in the “rock art researchers” community is the origin of cave paintings. A common theory is that shamans sought solidarity to consume hallucinogens and illustrate their visions in religious rituals. But the New Mexican scientists now found that the Pinwheel Cave was permanently inhabited. They detected traces of food storage, tools, and everyday items.

Datura was not only consumed by shamans of the Northern American south west. People used it in their everyday life, e.g. to gain strength and for initiation rituals of adolescents.

The American researchers found 65 cracks in the cave’s ceiling that contained balls made of chewed-up Datura pieces, so-called quids. They determined the age of the quids, using radiocarbon dating, and found that some were placed there between 1530 and 1655 and others between 1715 and 1890. The settlement of the cave is said to have ended in the latter period. These data show that Datura was used by Native Americans for many generations.

Moreover, the flower painting was drawn over multiple times. The scientists concluded from their combined results, that cave paintings are not the result of drug induced hallucinations, but rather illustrated the flower as an everyday item and the spot where it was preferably consumed.

The Theory

The flower painting in the Pinwheel Cave is very similar to an opening Datura blossom, it was painted over several times. The scientists concluded from their discoveries that cave paintings are not the result of drug-induced hallucinations, but rather show an everyday object, in the place where it was used most.


Robinson, D. W. (2020). Datura quids at Pinwheel Cave, California provide unambiguous confirmation of the ingestion of hallucinogens at a rock art site. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Published by Katrin Heidemeyer

Katrin Heidemeyer ist Doktorandin im Bereich Biochemie an der Wageningen University and Research. Durch ihre Arbeit möchte sie das Wissen über die Spezifität von Hormon-Signalen in Pflanzen erweitern. Da ihre Interessen über Pflanzenbiologie hinausreichen, schreibt sie in ihrer Freizeit über diverse Themen. Von Ernährung zu Psychologie, der Neugierde sind keine Grenzen gesetzt.

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