Monday, March 27, 2006

Prehistoric peyote use

I’m growing my Lophophora plants for aesthetics, but I have to admit that the mescaline content and the traditional ceremonial use by Native Americans are fascinating aspects. Apparently peyote use is ancient; archaeological discoveries in caves and rock shelters in the lower Pecos River region, Texas indicate that peyote use dates thousands of years back.

Peyote buttons recovered from a rock shelter in the lower Pecos River region
Peyote buttons recovered from a rock shelter in the lower Pecos River region (photo reproduced from Boyd et al.)

Recently El-Seedi et al. subjected samples from two archaeological specimens of peyote buttons to radiocarbon dating and alkaloid analysis. The specimens were discovered in Shumla Cave No. 5 on the Rio Grande, Texas and now reside in the collection of the Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas – see photo above. The peyote samples were dated to be in the time interval 3780–3660 BC, and the alkaloid yield was approximately 2% in both samples. The only peyote alkaloid that could be identified was mescaline, i.e. no traces of the other major peyote tetrahydroisoquinoline alkaloids like lophophorine, anhalonine, pellotine, and anhalonidine could be found.

The authors conclude “From a scientific point of view, the now studied ‘mescal buttons’ appears to be the oldest plant drugs which ever yielded a major bioactive compound upon phytochemical analysis. From a cultural perspective, our identification of mescaline strengthens the evidence that native North Americans already recognized and valued the psychotropic properties of the peyote cactus 5700 years ago.”

The ancient use of peyote is also supported by Boyd et al. who argue that Lower Pecos pictographs (found in the same area as the archaeological peyote specimens) can be seen as evidence for early peyotism.

Hesham R. El-Seedi, Peter A.G.M. De Smet, Olof Beck, Göran Possnert, Jan G. Bruhn (2005), “Prehistoric peyote use: Alkaloid analysis and radiocarbon dating of archaeological specimens of Lophophora from Texas”, Journal of Ethnopharmacology 101, 238–242

Carolyn E. Boyd, J. Philip Bering (1996), “Medicinal and hallucinogenic plants identified in the sediments and pictographs of the Lower Pecos, Texas Archaic”, Antiquity 70, 256-75


  1. Thanks so much for putting all this information online, you have a great blog.

  2. hey! i love your plants they look very nice. Good job. I was wondering if anyone could send me a few spare peyote seeds. I live in NJ so its hard to get. email me at

  3. You should check out the new dating of the buttons from Shumla Caves by Terry et al. 06

    Lower Pecos and Coahuila peyote: new radiocarbon dates
    Terry M, Steelman KL, Guilderson T, Dering P, Rowe MW
    J Archaelogical Science, 2006; 33:1017-1021

    I quote a couple of lines from the article:

    “The three Shumla Caves’ specimens are not simply desiccated crowns of peyote cacti as reported by previous workers [6,11], but are aggregates of ground peyote mixed with C3 plant materials to form flattened hemispheres vaguely resembling peyote buttons (Figs. 3 and 4). Bruhn et al. [6] demonstrated that the Shumla Caves’ specimens do contain some peyote tissue, as they have a high (2%) mescaline concentration uniquely characteristic of Lophophora, which exceeds concentrations in other plants of this region by orders of magnitude.
    The morphological and d13C data supporting this finding, as well as its cultural context and significance, will be discussed elsewhere (Terry et al., in preparation).”

    “Bruhn et al. [6] also recently radiocarbon dated two of the three Shumla Caves peyote specimens, but reported only ‘a mean age of 5700 years. After obtaining our results, we received a personal communication in which Bruhn added the following information: the radiocarbon ages of the two samples are 5030 +- 65 and 4885 +- 60 14C years BP, with a weighted mean of 4952 +- 44 14C years BP for the two samples (J.G. Bruhn, personal communication, 2004). This is ~250 radiocarbon years more recent than the average of our three dates of 5195 +- 20 14C years BP. We do not know the reason for this discrepancy. However, we also dated each of the same three Shumla Caves peyote samples without pretreatment (i.e., without removing any humic acid contamination). These dates were 4995 +- 40, 4515 +- 40 and 4670 +- 40 14C years BP. Clearly, the contaminating humic acids are younger than the peyote samples. If Bruhn et al.’s [6] pretreatment was insufficient to remove all humic acid contamination, then that would explain the fact that their dates are more recent than ours.”

    [6] J.G. Bruhn, P.A.G.M. De Smet, H.R. El-Seedi, O. Beck, Mescaline use
    for 5700 years, Lancet 359 (2002) 1866.

  4. Thanks for the reference, but I already have a copy of the article (and am planning to post a comment on it when I get the time;-)

    If you have any other recent or "obscure" references I would be glad to learn about them.


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