The oldest Representations of Hallucinogenic Mushrooms in the World
(Sahara Desert, 9000-7000 B.P.)
Integration, vol. 2/3, pp. 69-78, 1992
originally appeared in: Integration no. 2&3, 1992, 69-78
Copyright by author and org. publishers.
The original copy of this document can be found at
— The idea that the use of hallucinogens should be a source of inspiration for
some forms of prehistoric rock art is not a new one. After a brief examination
of instances of such art, this article intends to focus its attention on a group
of rock paintings in the Sahara Desert, the works of pre-neolithic Early
Gatherers, in which mushrooms effigies are represented repeatedly. The
polychromic scenes of harvest, adoration and the offering of mushrooms, and
large masked "gods" covered with mushrooms, not to mention other significant
details, lead us to suppose we are dealing with an ancient hallucinogenic
mushroom cult. What is remarkable about these ethnomycological works, produced
7.000 – 9.000 years ago, is that they could indeed reflect the most ancient
human culture as yet documented in which the ritual use of hallucinogenic
mushrooms is explicitly represented.
As the fathers of modern ethno-mycology
and in particular R. Gordon Wasson imagined, this Saharan testimony shows that
the use of hallucinogens goes back to the Paleolithic Period and that their use
always takes place within contexts and rituals of a mystico-religious
Rock paintings and incisions of the prehistoric periods are to
be found all over the world, and serve as a testimony to the pre-literate
history of human cultures. Rock art, the first permanent form of visual
communication known to man, the same art which led to the invention of writing,
goes back almost to the origins of mankind. In fact, in Tanzania, as in
Australia, there are rock paintings which it would appear go back 40,000 years
and more (Anati,1 989).
Since most of the works of rock art were, or were related to,
initiation rites, or were part of religious practice and its context, the idea
that these works should be associated with the use of hallucinogenic vegetals
(as has already been put forward for some specific cases on the basis of
ethnographic and ethnobotanical data) comes as no surprise. This use, where it
arises, is historically associated with controlled rituals involving social
groups of varying dimensions. It is perhaps not a chance occurrence that the
areas where examples of rock art are to be found — areas in which it is most
often asserted that the use of hallucinogens might have taken place, on the
basis of the scenes represented or on the basis of the consideration that this
practice might have served as a source of inspiration — are also the areas where
the most famous examples are to be found in, terms of imagination, mythological
significance and polychromy.
We might consider, for example, the works of archeological (or
rather "archeo-ethno-botanical") interest in the easternmost areas of Siberia,
within the Arctic Circle, on the banks of the Pegtymel River. An extensive
petroglyphic area was found there dating back to the local neolithic period.
Among these works, we find mushroom gatherers (Dikov, 1971). In some cases we
find females wearing long and ornate "ear-rings" and an enormous mushroom on
their heads, figures with the stance of people trying to keep their balance. The
stocky form and the decoration on the mushroom lead one to suppose these
mushrooms are Amanita muscaria (Fly-Agaric), the hallucinogenic mushroom
most often associated with shaman practices in Euro—Asia and N. America (Wasson,
1979). Mushroom motifs have also been found in the petroglyphs of the
prehistoric settlements of the Kamchatka peninsula on the banks of Lake Ushokovo
(Dikov, 1979). The paleolithic culture of Ushokovo (protoeskimoleuts) belongs to
the group of peoples who gave birth to the various paleo-eskimo cultures of N.
America (2nd Millenium B. C.). It is to be imagined that these protoeskimoleuts
belong to the peoples who contained within their culture, in embryo form,
"protoshaman" religious practices.
In California, the rock art of the regions inhabited by the
Chumash and Yokut, a polychromic manner of painting — particularly evident
during the stylistic phase known as the "Santa Barbara Painted Style" — has been
associated with the "toloache" cult centered around "Jimsonweed" (a
hallucinogenic plant of the Datura genus) known to have been used by a
number of Californian and Mexican Indian tribes (Campbell, 1965:63-64; Wellmann,
1978 and 1981). Apparently, the first examples of Chumash rock art date back to
5.000 years ago (Hyder & Oliver, 1983).
The impressive Pecos River paintings in Texas have also been
associated with the "mescal" cult (Sophora secundiflora, hallucinogenic
beans of which were used during rites of initiation on the part of the Indian
tribes of the region) (Howard, 1957). Furst (1986) affirms that the mescal cult
goes back 10.000 years, which is to say back to the Paleo-Indian Hunters Period
at the end of the Pleistocene period. Archeological excavations carried out in
the areas where paintings are to be found reveal mescal seeds which go back to
8.000 B. C, when Carbon-14 dated. Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) has also
been found during some of these excavations (Campbell, 1958).
An interesting and quite explicit use of "cohoba", a
hallucinogenic snuff taken from the Anadenanthera peregrina tree has been
documented among the peoples of the Borbon Caves art in the Dominican Republic
(Pagan Perdomo, 1978). This art is probably an example of the Late Antillian
Culture of the Tainos and goes back to a period shortly before the arrival of
the Spaniards. In this painting, the subject of inhalation of cohoba — by means
of cane pipes — is repeatedly represented (Franch, 1982).
The use of hallucinogens as a significant source of inspiration
has also been associated with Peruvian rock art. The rock art in this case is
based on incisions on rocks, as can be seen in the Rio Chinchipe works in the
north of Peru, probably influenced by the use of ayahuasca
(Banisteriopsis spp. & allies) (Andritzky, 1989: 55-57). That
this is an ancient practice is confirmed by archeological findings (Naranjo,
1986). Also in the rock art of Samanga, the mountainous region of the province
of Ayabaca (Piura), among the petroglyphs, we will find figures which have been
interpreted as images of San Pedro (Trichocereus pachanoi), the
hallucinogenic cactus still used today in the north of Peru and in Ecuador
during shaman healing rites (Polia, 1987 and 1988).
Indeed, archeological indications as to the use of
hallucinogens are to be found within many Precolumbian cultures (Dobkin de Rios,
1974; Furst, 1974).
Recently it has even been put forward that even the more
ancient paleolithic art of the Franco-Canthabric cave-sanctuaries were
influenced by altered states of consciousness procured by various methods, among
which the use of hallucinogens (Lewis-Williams & Dowson, 1988). The
"psychograms" of the paleolithic period, a series of aniconic graphemes (points,
vertical lines, circles, zig-zags, lozenges etc.) which, together with
zoomorphic images, cover the walls of the European paleolithic caves, could be
considered as the fruit of entoptic, phosphenic or hallucinatory states, typical
sensorial phenomena pertaining to the field of altered states of consciousness,
as might be gathered from Reichel-Dolmatoff’s well-known research into the
Tukano of the Amazon (1978: 43-47). Furthermore, natural changes in
consciousness due to prolonged sensorial isolation have already been noted.
These conditions can be determined in the deep paleolithic caves. Even though
the "neuropsychological model" put forward by Lewis-Williams & Dowson is not
sufficient on its own to interpret that complex phenomenom which is paleolithic
art, this model at least paves the way to supposing that mind-altering factors
may have contributed to a prehistoric will-to-art.
At this point, we should remember Kaplan’s (1975) theory that
mushrooms are represented in the Swedish cave art of the long Scandinavian
It should also be pointed out that the explicit representation
of psychotropic vegetals, as sacred objects (and therefore subject to taboo), is
rare and the few cases of explicit representation make up but a small part of
prehistoric art, as sacred art, associated with the use of hallucinogens. We
must consider that, generally speaking, sacred cult objects will not be
represented and that it is more than likely that these will be hidden behind
symbolic devices, also of a graphic nature, whose meaning is indeed beyond
Further evidence in support of the idea that the relationship
between Man and hallucinogens — in this case mushrooms is indeed an ancient one
comes from the ancient populations of the Sahara desert who inhabited this vast
area when it was still covered with an extensive layer of vegetation (Samorini,
1989). The archeological findings consist in prehistoric paintings which the
author personally had the opportunity to observe during two visits to Tassilli
in Algeria. This could be the most ancient ethno-mycological finding up to the
present day, which goes back to the so-called "Round Heads" Period (i.e. 9.000 –
7.000 years ago). The centre of this style is Tassili, but examples are also to
be found at Tadrart Acacus (Libya), Ennedi (Chad) and, to a lesser extent, at
Jebel Uweinat (Egypt) (Muzzolini, 1986:173-175).
Central Saharan rock art, apart from extensive concentrations
of incisions, near the sites of ancient rivers, and rock-shelter paintings among
the large promontories or high plateau which reach an altitude of some 2,000
metres, cover a period of 12,000 years, generally divided in 5 periods:
the "Bubalus antiquus" Period, the works of which were produced by the
Early Hunters at the end of the Pleistocene period (10.000 – 7.000 years B. C.)
— characterized by representations of large wild animals (Mori, 1974); the
"Round Heads" Period, in turn divided into various phases and styles, associated
with the epipaleolithic populations of the Early Gatherers (7.000 – 5.000 years
B. C.), whose works of fantasy have quite rightly become world famous; the
"Bovidian" or "Pastoral" Period (starting 5.000 years B. C.), a population of
animal herders and breeders whose art is predominantly concentrated on these
activities and, after these, the "Horse" Period and, lastly, the "Camel" Period,
the art works of which are stereotyped and of a lower quality.
Some rock art experts have already produced evidence supporting
the idea that the art of the Round Head Period could be influenced by ecstatic
or hallucinogenic states. According to Anati (1989: 187), this art is produced
by the Early Gatherers during the end of Pleistocene and the beginning of
Holecene periods. Analogous works dating back nearly to the same period are to
be found in various sites around the world (Sahara Desert, Tanzania, Texas,
Mexico etc.). These areas were later to become arid or semi-arid when the lakes
and rivers dried up. From the many works of art these peoples have left us we
learn what were gatherers of wild vegetal foods: "people who lived in a sort of
garden of Eden and who used mind-altering substances". Sansoni too (1980) is of
the opinion that "it might be that (the works of art of the Round Heads Period)
are the works of normal consciousness or the results of particular ecstatic
states associated with dance or the use of hallucinogenic substances -The
context, or rather the "motivations" behind Round Heads art, just as with all
the other periods of Sahara rock art, are generally of a religious and, perhaps,
initiatory nature. Fabrizio Mori, discussing Acacus, stressed "the close
relationship which there must have been between the painter and that figure so
typical in all prehistoric societies whose main role is that of mediator between
earth and sky:
the wizard-priest" (Mori, 1975). According to Henri Lohte, the
discoverer of the Tassili frescoes, "it seems evident that these painted
cavities were secret sanctuaries" (Lhote, 1968).
Images of enormous mythological beings of human or animal form,
side by side with a host of small horned and feathered beings in dancing stance
cover the rock shelters of which there are very many on the high plateau of the
Sahara which in some areas are so interconnected as to form true "citadels" with
streets, squares and terraces.
One of the most important scenes is to be found in the
Tin-Tazarift rock art site, at Tassili, in which we find a series of masked
figures in line and hieratically dressed or dressed as dancers surrounded by
long and lively festoons of geometrical designs of different kinds. Each dancer
holds a mushroom-like object in the right hand and, even more surprising, two
parallel lines come out of this object to reach the central part of the head of
the dancer, the area of the roots of the two horns. This double line could
signify an indirect association or non-material fluid passing from the object
held in the right hand and the mind. This interpretation would coincide with the
mushroom interpretation if we bear in mind the universal mental value induced by
hallucinogenic mushrooms and vegetals, which is often of a mystical and
spiritual nature (Dobkin de Rios, 1984:194). It would seem that these lines — in
themselves an ideogram which represents something non-material in ancient art —
represent the effect that the mushroom has on the human mind.
The whole scene is steeped in deep symbolic meanings and is a
representation of a cultural event which actually happened and which was
periodically repeated. Perhaps we are witnessing one of the most important
moments in the social, religious and emotional lives of these peoples. The
constant nature of the physical nature of the dancers and their stances reveals
a coordinated will towards scenic representation for collective contexts. The
dance represented here has all the indications of a ritual dance and perhaps, at
a certain stage, this rite became ecstatic.
In the various scenes presented, a series of figurative
constants lead us to imagine an accompanying conceptual structure associated
with the ethno-mycological cult described here.
Evident examples of such constants are the two remarkable
southern Tassili figures (sites: Aouanrhat and Matalem-Amazar). Both are
approximately 0.8 metres tall, they wear the typical mask of this pictorial
phase and a typical gait (legs bent inwards and arms bent downwards). Another
common feature is the presence of mushroom symbols starting from the fore-arms
and thighs; others are hand held. In the case of the Matalem-Amazar figure,
these objects are scattered over the entire area surrounding the body.
This mushroom symbol was first interpreted by researchers as an
arrowhead, an oar (Mori 1975), a vegetal, probably a flower (Lhote,
1973: 210 and 251), or as an undefined enigmatic symbol. The form which most
closely corresponds to this cult-abject is that of a mushroom, most probably of
a psychotropic kind the sacramental and socialized use of which is represented
in gathering and offering scenes and in the expressive ritual dances, in
phosphenic geometrical patterns and in Tassili visionary works.
Thus, these two figures could be interpreted as images of the
"spirit of the mushroom", known to exist in other cultures characterized by the
use of a mushroom or other psychotropic vegetals.
In a shelter in Tin-Abouteka, in Tassili, there is a motif
appearing at least twice which associates mushrooms and fish; a unique
association of symbols among ethno-mycological cultures. Two mushrooms are
depicted opposite each other, in a perpendicular position with regard to the
fish motif and near the tail. Not far from here, above, we find other fish which
are similar to the aforementioned but without the side-mushrooms.
In the same Tin-Abouteka scene, yet another remarkable image
could be explained in the light of ethno-mycological enquiry. In the middle we
find an anthropomorphous figure traced only by an outline. The image is not
complete and the body is bending; it probably also has a bow. Behind this
figure, we find two mushrooms which seem to be positioned as though they were
coming out from behind the anthropomorphs.
If the mushrooms in question are those which grow in dung, the
association between these mushrooms and the rear of the figure may not be purely
casual. It is known that many psychotropic mushrooms (above all, Psilocybe
and Panaeolus genera) live in dung of certain quadrupeds and in
particular bovines, cervides and equines. This specific ecological phenomenom
cannot but have been taken into account with regard to the sacramental use of
psychotropic mushrooms, leading to the creation of mystico-religious relations
between the mushroom and the animal which produces its natural habitat.
Furthermore, the dung left by herds of quadrupeds were important clues for
prehistoric hunters on the lookout for game, and the deepening of such
skatological knowledge probably goes back to the paleolithic period (the long
period of the hunter of large game). Thus we have a further argument in favour
of the version of events that would have it that there have been mythical
associations, with religious interpretations, on different occasions, between
the (sacred) animal and the hallucinogenic mushroom. The sacred deer in the
Mesoamerican cultures and the cow in Indian Hindu culture (the dung of which
provides a habitat for Psilocybe cubensis, a powerful hallucinogen
still used today) could be interpreted in this zoo-skatological manner (Wasson,
1986:44; Furst, 1974; Samorini, 1988).
In a painting at Jabbaren — one of the most richly endowed
Tassili sites — there are at least 5 people portrayed in a row kneeling with
their arms held up before them in front of three figures two of which are
clearly anthropomorphous. It could be a scene of adoration in which the three
figures would represent divinities or mythological figures. The two
anthropomorphous figures have large horns while the upper portion of the third
figure, behind them, is shaped like a large mushroom. If the scene is indeed a
scene of adoration, it is an important testimonial as to Round Heads
mystico-religious beliefs. This scene would thus be the representation of a
"Holy Trinity" illustrated by a precise iconography. It is worth bearing in mind
the fact that the upper part of one of the "trinity" figures in the adoration
scene is mushroom-shaped. It could be related to the iconographic figure at
Aouanrhat and Matalem-Amazar described above.
But the more or less anthropomorphous figures with
mushroom-shaped heads are to be found repeatedly in Round Head art, some with
"hat-heads" of umboned or papillate form which on two occasions are of a bluish
colour while others carry a leaf or a small branch.
The occurrence of various data suggests the presence of a very
ancient hallucinogenic mushroom cult with a complex differentiation between
botanical species and related mythological representations. Indeed it would be
remarkable to find out that, as part of the culture of the Late Stone Age which
7.000 to 9.000 years ago produced Round Heads rock art, we were in the presence
of the oldest human culture yet discovered in which explicit representations of
the ritual use of psychotropic mushrooms are to be found. Therefore, as the
founders of modern ethno-mycology had already put forward — and this is
especially true of Wasson (1986) — this Saharan testimony would demonstrate that
the use of hallucinogens originates in the Paleolithic period and is invariably
include within mystico-religious contexts and rituals.
It is not easy to identify the mushrooms represented in Round
Heads art. The biochemical characteristics of these mushrooms determine the
action on the human mind and it either belongs to a flora which has disappeared
or, retreated to the Saharan basin which later became desert. From the paintings
it would seem there are at least two species one of which is small and topped
with a "papilla" (a characteristic it would share with most known hallucinogenic
Psilocybe) and the other of which is larger (like Boletus or
Amanita). The colours used are white and probably the result of oxidation
of the original colour).
The Sahara Desert area has undergone periodic and significant
climatic variations. At least three long humid periods have been identified
since 20.000 BC, interrupted by three periods of drought, and it appears that
the drought we know today is less severe than the two which preceded it. The
semi-quantitative graph drawn up by Muzzolini (1982) presents the "Great Humid
Holocemic Period" characterized by the presence of enormous lakes all over the
Saharan basin (10.000 BC — 5.500 BC). The generally accepted chronology of Round
Heads art fits comfortably into this period. Pollen examination carried out at
Tassili reveals that, during the Round Heads period, this area was vegetated by
highland flora (2.000 m height) with the presence of coniferous trees and oaks
(AA.VV., 1986: 97). It can be presumed that some of the mushrooms represented
(the large ones) were indigenous to this wooded area in that they are intimately
associated with these species of tree.
Mushrooms are not the only vegetals to be found in Round Heads
art. We often find figures in typical costume and in hieratic positions,
dancing, and holding in their hands small branches or leaves (and in one
instance roots). At least two species occur fairly frequently in the images
found at Tassili and nearby Acacus. In fact, the interest which surrounds the
hallucinogens is always represented within a context of general interest in
vegetals and it is most likely that it is within these contexts, related to
religious activity and initiation, that we find the origins of individual
specializations within the communities of these people concerning the magical,
therapeutic and culinary aspects of vegetals.
This new piece in the ethno-mycological puzzle is even more
significant if we consider it from the point of view of research into the use of
hallucinogens in the immense African continent. Some progress has been made over
the last few years as regards the study of this problem (see the work of e.g.,
Emboden, 1989; Hargreaves, 1986; Lehman & Mihalyi, 1982; Monfouga-Brousta,
1976; Wagner, 1991; Winkelman & Dobkin de Rios, 1989). Africa — both because
of an ignorance of the facts which has continued up to the present day and
because of the wealth and extreme old age of the indigenous "animist" religions
— has still much to tell us concerning the human use of hallucinogens and the
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