Recent Graphic Evidence for the Covert Use Of Hallucinogenic Mushrooms By Sandawe Bushmen Shamans

Archaeologist John Cavallo recognized something quiet remarkable in this print of a rock painting from the Kondoa-Irangi districts of central Tanzania (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) that had been examined by earlier and more recent researchers. Although he was very familiar with the painting, it suddenly struck him one day how closely the strange heads or hats he initially thought he saw on several of the figures resemble mushrooms. Comparing the strange figures with numerous photographs and drawings of different mushroom species revealed that the heads of three of the four figures are extremely similar to the caps on the hallucinogenic genus of mushroom called Psilocybe spp. (See Figures 1 and 2).

Clinical studies show that Psilocybe mushrooms produce strong intoxicating effects that can last up to 7 hours depending on the dosage, preparation, and individual metabolism and cause visual, audio, and physical hallucinations. They take effect in mere minutes as opposed to many hours of grueling physical activity, thus offering a speedy and painless gateway to the spirit realm. According to Cavallo, the head on the fourth figure on the far left side of the composition could represent the radiating “gills” on the interiors of the caps (See Figure 1). Other human-like figures in the painting all exhibit attributes indicative of trance states including the flower-like bursts on the thin, highly elongated figures on the far right who show signs of their supernatural potency exploding in their heads and propelling them into trance. The four figures associated with the elephants in the large outlined ovoid shape were previously interpreted as either disguised human hunters, parts of tree branches, or porcupines. However, referring to ethnographic accounts, Cavallo contends that the figures represent shamans in trance who were experiencing the sensation of their hair growing longer like the mane of a lion during the Sandawe “simbo” or lion dance. Simbo literally means “the state of being a lion.” Like the southern Bushman trance dance, simbo also involves entering trance and embarking on out-of-body journeys in the form of lions.

Significantly, the Kondoa figures are the first pictorial representations of part-human part-mushroom beings that strongly suggest the use of mind-altering mushrooms by ancient Sandawe shamans in magico-religious rituals. What was initially puzzling, however, is the lack of any references to this practice in early historical or twentieth-century ethnographic accounts of the Sandawe. The absence of direct ethnographic references to their ritual use, and their rare, almost camouflaged depictions in the paintings, lend considerable credence to their possession by only a small number of individuals. More than likely they were the most experienced and knowledgeable among the shamans with proven skills and accomplishments that set them apart from their peers. But who specifically were the guardians of this psychotropic secret?
There are some interesting but vague references to their identity in twentieth-century !Kung Bushman accounts regarding the unique abilities of “the most experienced” or “the greatest shamans.” However, one reference he came across is particularly telling and unambiguous. It concerns a !Kung shaman’s description of the fear, intensity, and pain experienced during a healing dance. Importantly, the informant also told the interviewer that “mature and experienced healers [shamans] can avoid bodily collapse, rigidity, trembling, and moaning…” normally associated with entering trance. In the context of Cavallo’s findings, this comment strongly indicates that the informant is referring to elderly shamans whose advanced age and diminishing physical capabilities no longer permit them to participate in such prolonged, strenuous activity. Their secret would likely have been passed on over time to only a few select shamans of their age set who had demonstrated comparable shamanic skills and spiritual accomplishments, thus insuring the safekeeping by a what might have been a powerful emerging social and religious elite. (From H. D. Fosbrooke 1950. Redrawn by J.A. Cavallo).

PRINT NUMBER 6
40 x 65 cm










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figure 1


figure 2