Ancient Californian teenagers ingested hallucinogenic drugs designed to help them "contact a supernatural" plane and "acquire power animals" and even visit the land of the dead, according to the authors of a new study.
Initiates of the Chumash, a Native American people that inhabited coastal regions in California including what is now Los Angeles, would enter a trance-like state thanks to psychoactive substances in the plant Datura, according to the study.
Dr David Robinson, a Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Central Lancashire, claims people ingested Datura "primarily as a way of contacting the supernatural in order to achieve certain things".
He added that people who died without undergoing the initiation ceremony were thought to be somewhat "culturally ignorant" and would find it difficult to reach the land of the dead – usually equated with travelling through the Milky Way in Chumash culture – because they lacked the secret knowledge from consuming the plant.
He added: "What they would do is they would sequester the initiates, around puberty, and they would prepare a drink called the Toloache.
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"An elder who had experience doing this would go find the plant, and often talk to it and ask for its permission to use the plant."
He said that the hallucinogens were used so initiates could "acquire power animals" which are also known as "familiars".
"Different groups call them different things but basically, the central idea in California was that you aligned yourself, you tried to get allies in the supernatural, animals’ powers, who would then be your advocates and helpers throughout the rest of your life," he said.
Dr Robinson said the cave paintings in Pinwheel Cave, California, may have been drawn under the influence of the hallucinogenic drug.
The authors of the study, in their article, said one painting in the cave on the ceiling possibly represents the flowers of Datura.
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"These results confirm the use of hallucinogens at a rock art site while calling into question previous assumptions concerning trance and rock art imagery," they wrote.
Speaking about whether the pinwheel rock art image was something that people saw and drew during the trance or whether it was something that was created afterwards, Dr Robinson said: "Well, this is the debate!
"Because a lot of people think that the rock art is a reflection of what people see in trance."
Datura is used in modern medicine, most notably for its compound scopolamine, which is used to treat motion sickness, and nausea and vomiting after surgical operations.
Another compound in the plant, atropine, is used to treat lower heart rates and reduce salivation before an operation, among other uses.
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