Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Accessing the Spirit World Volume 49 Number 6, November/December 1996
by Brett Leslie Freese

[image] Impaled deer and dots represent peyote at a Pecos River site. (Carolyn E. Boyd) [LARGER IMAGE, 24K]

Two hallucinogenic plants have been identified in 4,000-year-old wall paintings at rock-shelters throughout the Pecos River region of southwest Texas and northern Mexico, according to anthropologists Carolyn E. Boyd and J. Philip Dering of Texas A&M University, who believe anthropomorphic figures in the art may represent shamans who used the plants to communicate with the spirit world.

Boyd and Dering say that images of spiny ovals attached to staffs closely resemble the seed pods of jimson weed, and that disk-shaped crowns of the peyote cactus are represented by dots and deer impaled by arrows. Deer and peyote are linked in the religious beliefs of the modern Huichol Indians of northern Mexico, whose shamans ritually hunt and shoot the peyote cactus with arrows as if it were a deer. Boyd and Dering believe the two plants were used as early as 4,000 years ago, based on carbon-dated pigments and peyote and jimson-weed remains from middens at the sites.

Anthropomorphic figures are often depicted in the rock paintings alongside images of peyote and jimson weed. Boyd says that ethnographic and historical accounts of Indians from the American Southwest to Mexico indicate that "these are the two plants most commonly used by shamans to access the spirit world."

© 1996 by the Archaeological Institute of America