In case you’re not a regular subscriber to Economic Botany, and to my shame I’m not, you mightn’t have read the following recently published paper: Brian P. Akers, Juan Francisco Ruiz, Alan Piper and Carl P. Ruck 2011. ‘A Prehistoric Mural in Spain Depicting Neurotropic Psilocybe Mushrooms?’ Economic Botany (XX)X: 1-8.
The global psychedelic community is certainly all atwitter about its findings, which seem to suggest that some Neolithic rock paintings found in a rock shelter at what is now the Villar del Humo cultural site in Cuenca, Spain, depict psilocybin mushrooms and would indicate, therefore, that the shamanistic use of psychedelic fungi, the so-called magic mushrooms, is venerable and ancient.
Well, despite the authors’ welcome caveats that theirs is a suggestion only, the news has already gone viral. The textbooks will certainly be revised and photos of the Selva Pascuala mural will appear for ever more on blogs and album covers as proof of the ancientness of psychonautical exploration. But before this happens, I feel I have to make a Cnut-like stand against the inevitable tide and urge caution, for there are some serious problems with this interpretation.
I’m no artist but were I to doodle a closed semicircle on a stick, you’d recognise at once that I’d drawn a mushroom. Of course, what I’d drawn would only bear a passing resemblance to the fruiting body of an actual carpophore; rather, it would depict a culturally-agreed symbol or ‘sign’ (to use the correct semiotic term) for a mushroom, a visual language we pick up in kindergarten (I’m grateful to Nomi, my wife, who is an artist and a stunning draughtswoman, for pointing this out – it’s blindingly obvious when you think about it, but it had never occurred to me until she did). Just because a semicircle or a triangle or something in-between, placed on a stick, all scream ‘mushroom’ to us doesn’t mean that they necessarily did to our prehistoric ancestors. The sign may have meant something else entirely to the Selva Pascuala artist(s), or could have been a mindless doodle for all we know. So here is problem number one:
Not everything that looks like a mushroom is a mushroom.
The so-called ‘mushrooms’ appear on the rock face with some rather stunning, beautifully drawn animals – an ox and a deer. These are from another, much earlier, naturalistic period of rock-art; the ‘mushrooms’ were painted later, at a time when the art was more ‘schematized’, which is to say, the creators did not value naturalistic accuracy. Here then is problem number two: the pictures are so vague that, even assuming that they are indeed mushrooms, the idea that they are accurate enough to facilitate an accurate species identification is pretty far-fetched (any first-timers wanting to use the murals as a mushroom-picking guide will be sorely disappointed).
The authors do not consider what other similar-looking, non-psychoactive mushrooms, might also fit the bill as presumably there are so many that their argument would founder (had they done so, we could at least have put a probability on these being psilocybin mushrooms – my guess is less than 1 in 500, the images are that vague). Indeed, the psychoactive contender they proffer, Psilocybe hispanica, is a species they admit has neither been found in the Selva Pascuala region nor at such a low altitude (they simply infer its presence by analogy with other species).
Not everything that is a mushroom is a magic mushroom.
The idea that some rock art may originate in hallucinogenic experiences has been put forward by David Lewis Williams and others, and while popular outside the academy, is far from accepted within the archaeological community (I summarise the debates in Shroom). The authors, however, assume that the Selva Pascuala mural, by its proximity to depictions of animals, must be shamanistic in origin, which in turn corroborates their identifying the mushrooms as Psilocybe hispanica (a coprophilic species).
But this is to get lost in circularity: the art is shamanistic therefore the mushrooms are psychedelic; the mushrooms are psychedelic therefore the art is shamanistic. There are many ways that people consume magic mushrooms, not least recreationally, and to imagine that the only prehistoric context for mushroom consumption is shamanism is simplistic, essentializes and univeralizes shamanism (another of my bugbears, but I’ll save that for another time) and simply back-projects our aspirations onto the past. The paper is not assisted here by some allusions to classical Greece: quite what they have to do with Neolithic Spain is unclear.
Just because they’re magic mushrooms doesn’t mean we can infer intentional, ritualistic, religious or shamanistic usage.
Every step of the argument – that they are mushrooms, that they are magic mushrooms, that they were used intentionally for shamanism – requires an inferential step, steps which, in the absence of further, independent, triangulating evidence, can only be speculative. Had psilocybin mushrooms turned up in a nearby Neolithic grave, say, or if there were a naturalistic picture of someone eating a mushroom or of the mushroom itself, or if Psilocybe hispanica grew everywhere and abundantly around Selva Pascuala, then we’d be on much firmer ground. But like most writers on the subject, the authors start from the position that psilocybin mushrooms must have been used in prehistory, and then attempt to establish that this were the case. They put the cart before the horse.
Rock art, here, is not unlike a Rorschach inkblot test, in that we see what we want to see, and back-project our own world view onto the distant past. Who knows how wide of the mark we are? The approach favoured by a new generation of archaeologists and historians is to look at all the evidence and then see what interpretations it supports. The chances are, many, with little or no way to determine which is correct. But, as David J. Hufford wrote in his excellent essay, Reflexivity and the Role of the Researcher:
“We must learn to tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity, while holding the reduction of uncertainty and ambiguity in our knowledge as primary goals (always sought, never completely achieved). That is not a contradiction or a paradox. It is a fact of life.”
It’s a shame, too, that the authors didn’t see fit to submit their paper to an archaeological journal where it could have received a proper hearing by experts in rock art interpretation. Doubtless Economic Botany have the highest standards when it comes to matters plant-related, but I’m doubtful that their referees are up to speed with the finer debates of petroglyphology.
When pointing out these kinds of weaknesses, in Shroom and elsewhere, I’ve often met considerable resistance. The question I always ask of people struggling to match the evidence with what they want to believe, is this: ‘why does it matter to you so much? Why do you need the past to be like this?’ The answer, I think, is that it’s intoxicating knowing that you’re part of an ancient psychedelic tradition, something hidden and secretive, something transgressive and oppressed, but which professes to have the keys to truth. Establishing that there is a venerable tradition seems to provide justification for our psychedelic practices, practices which mainstream society deems unacceptable. I’m not unsympathetic to that need at all – God knows I’ve wanted it to be true – it’s just that for myself I can’t abandon reason, and reason makes belief in such a tradition very difficult to sustain. (In practice, tradition provides a very weak form of justification: war, rape and homophobia are three traditions we could happily do without).
Critics might easily turn the question around and ask why it matters so much to me to disprove these kinds of claims. Good question. Well, I’m not an iconoclast for the sake of it. I just want to see psychedelic prehistory supported by the evidence and not simply bent into the service of wish-fulfilment. Perhaps counter-intuitively, if we do so then we strengthen our case.
I happen to think that psychedelic shamanism matters. If used with correct intent, psychedelics have the potential to offer us profound psychological insights, healing even, and to help us bridge the ever-widening the gap between nature and culture. Their contemporary reflorescence could not be more timely, just at the point where we’re looking towards a very uncertain future driven by climate change.
Only this weekend in The Guardian, the super-fashionable intellectual Slavoj Zizek was quoted as calling anyone who thinks we have lost contact with nature a newage bullshitter. That’s what we’re up against. As I’ve argued before, to stand up for psychedelic shamanism to is be considered mad. We’re nutters or bullshitters, and by abandoning reason, we leave ourselves wide open to that kind of discursive labelling. They don’t even have to try and take us seriously. It’s the oldest trick in the book.
My ongoing project is, rather, to try and tackle academia head on, on its own terms, using reason, philosophy and argument to try and establish a case for psychedelic shamanism in such a way that it has to be taken seriously. The risk is that we might have to lose some of our cherished truths but I think that is a small price to pay. And hey, isn’t that why we’re psychedelic explorers in the first place, because we’re unsatisfied with old certainties? We're like the sea-captains of old who, when told they were nearing the rim of the world ordered the mainsail hosited and the spinnaker raised so they could go see for themselves. Here be dragons? Nonsense! (Though, er, actually...)
There’s a danger here that if we don’t question ourselves we’ll end up ossifying into a kind of entheogism, replete with its own mythology, founding fathers, saints, orthodoxies and cherished truths. I’m with the brothers McKenna: it behoves us to question.
So, to restate my position: that these strange, daubed figures might indeed depict psilocybin mushrooms, used within a shamanistic context, remains a possibility but one that is far from proven and which rests on several unsupported assertions.
I’m happy to live with the uncertainty of not knowing what, exactly, these figures were but I can feel my feet are getting wet and the tide is coming in fast so I’m going to go dry off with a nice cup of tea.