Pinwheel Cave rock art in California may depict hallucinogenic ‘trance flower’

Just before going into a hallucinogenic trance, Indigenous Californians who had gathered in a cave likely looked up toward the rocky ceiling, where a pinwheel and big-eyed moth were painted in red. 

a close up of a painted wall: A digitally enhanced image of the Indigenous pinwheel drawing that researchers made with a technique called D-Stretch.

© Provided by Live Science
A digitally enhanced image of the Indigenous pinwheel drawing that researchers made with a technique called D-Stretch.

This mysterious “pinwheel,” is likely a depiction of the delicate, white flower of Datura wrightii, a powerful hallucinogen that the Chumash people took not only for ceremonial purposes but also for medicinal and supernatural ones, according to a new study. The moth is likely a species of hawk moth, known for its “loopy” intoxicated flight after slurping up Datura‘s nectar, the researchers said.

Chewed globs that humans stuck to the cave’s ceiling provided more evidence of these ancient trips; these up to 400-year-old lumps, known as quids, contained the mind-altering drugs scopolamine and atropine, which are found in Datura, the researchers said.

Related: Trippy tales: The history of 8 hallucinogens

The finding marks “the first clear evidence for the ingestion of hallucinogens at a rock art site, in this case, from Pinwheel Cave, California,” the researchers wrote in the study, published online today (Nov. 23) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The artists probably weren’t high when they drew the rock art, however. “It’s extremely unlikely because of the debilitating effects of Datura,” study lead researcher David Robinson, a reader in archaeology at the University of Central Lancashire in England, told Live Science. Rather, just like religious artwork and objects at a church, these rock paintings were likely “setting the scene,” and helping people about to go into a trance understand the flower’s power and the shared tradition of taking the hallucinogen in that particular cave, he said.

Coming of age ceremony

Archaeologists first learned about the rock paintings in 1999, when workers at Wild Wolves Preserve, a nature preserve about 90 miles (145 kilometers) northeast of Santa Barbara, found a pinwheel and insect painted with ochre, a reddish mineral used in cave art around the world. 

At first glance, the 4-inch by 7-inch (10.5 by 17 centimeters) pinwheel drawing doesn’t look much like a Datura flower, but any botanist would tell you otherwise. Datura, also known as jimsonweed and angel trumpet, unfurls at dusk and dawn when insects pollinate it, but during the heat of the day it twists up. It’s possible this cave painting features an “opening Datura flower,” the researchers wrote in the study.

Researchers already knew that the Chumash people used Datura for ceremonies and in everyday life, according to historic descriptions from missionaries and anthropological work. Historians think Datura was used to “gain supernatural power for doctoring, to counteract negative supernatural events, to ward off ghosts, and to see the future or find lost objects, but, most especially, as a mendicant for a variety of ailments,” the researchers wrote in the study. It was also put in a tea called toloache for a

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