Two Possible Mushroom-Headed Shamans in Altered States
Archaeologist John Cavallo recently discovered several mushroom-headed human figures in two rock paintings from the Kondoa-Irangi districts of central Tanzania (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Comparing the painted images with numerous photographs of African mushrooms, he found they most closely resemble the caps on the hallucinogenic genus Psilocybe spp. Subsequently, he later came upon another remarkable graphic depiction of hallucinogenic mushrooms shown in this print in a southern Bushman painting published in 2002 in a book by South African archaeologist David Lewis-Williams shown in this print. In his discussion of this painting from the Eastern Cape Province, South Africa, Lewis-Williams interprets the images in the lower right portion of the painting as “four small human necks and heads.” He also notes that the two lines falling from the nose of one of the heads indicate “the blood trance experience.” Oddly however, he makes no mention of the two similar images suspended just above the lower group. They consist of a small featureless figure emerging from a blackened prominence on the rock surface. The larger, uppermost image has a long serpent coiled around its so-called neck. The image closely resembles two of the four “human necks and heads” in the lower right of the composition. Importantly, the uppermost figure also shows the same two lines falling from the face that symbolize nasal bleeding in /Xam Bushman paintings and an altered state of consciousness. The remainder of the painting is composed of numerous fish and lesser numbers of turtles and snakes swimming in an obvious aquatic setting. The dominant figure, however, is a part-eland, part-human ‘therianthrope’ that is either emerging from or seated in a horizontal, boat-shaped blackened prominence in the rock surface. In its hand is what appears to be a digging stick typically used by Bushmen that is weighted with a round, drilled stone. There is a bag containing many fly whisks floating above the therianthrope—artifacts usually only associated with shamans in a state of trance. Collectively, this aggregation of images point to a physically transformed shaman in an altered state of consciousness embarking on his hallucinatory journey to the spirit realm by traveling underwater into the depths of a waterhole as discussed in nineteenth-century accounts of /Xam informants. These informants also relate the sensation of being under water as analogous to the trance experience.
However, based on his comparative study, Cavallo believes that there is much more going on in this composition than originally described by Lewis-Williams. For example, numerous photographs of the caps of Psilocybe mushrooms in different stages of growth provide compelling confirmation that the previously interpreted human-like images in the right-hand portion of the painting are instead, clear representations of the hallucinogenic genus of mushroom Psilocybe spp. (see Figures 1 and 2). Four species of Psilocybe are found in Africa, including cubensis and subcubensis, the so-called “Magic Mushrooms.” These mushrooms grow on the dung of wild animals that serve as fertile organic-rich islands in places like the Serengeti plains and grasslands on the Maasai Steppe near Kondoa where migratory species of ungulates congregate seasonally. There is also a suggestion of the “gills” on the undersides of mushroom caps that appear like hair on the lower figure that is bleeding from the nose. The weighted digging stick held in the eland theirianthrope’s hand, and its close proximity to one of the larger mushrooms, could be depicting the transformed shaman in the process of excavating the subterranean root-like mycel of the mushroom to avoid breaking off part of the potent stem. This activity suggests that mushrooms could have been the source of the shaman’s altered state of consciousness.
The mushrooms with human-like faces, especially the two showing nasal bleeding, appear to represent tiny shamans who transformed into part mushroom beings. The apparent rarity of mushroom images in both Tanzanian and southern Bushmen rock art suggest that their existence and the hallucinatory properties of these fungi may have been a highly coveted secret held by very small groups of experienced shamans. Since shamans were the principal herbalists and medical practitioners in Bushmen society, their secret could have easily been kept from other shamans outside of their groups and even from entire communities by simply warning them that this species of mushroom was a deadly poison. Concealment of the hallucinogenic properties of the mushrooms from outsiders, even in an egalitarian society, was not out of character for shamans according to author and philosopher Daniel Dennett. He points out that shamans all over the world use various tactics (i.e. tricks) such as mass hypnosis or walking unharmed over beds of hot coals to demonstrate the mastery of their trade to their audiences. They also employ sleight-of-hand tricks such as concealing animal entrails, crystalline stones, or small, sharpened sticks “that can then be miraculously ‘removed’ from the afflicted person’s torso in ‘psychic surgery.’” Although, as Dennett phrases it, shamans are not all con men, “they know the effects they achieve are trade secrets that must not be revealed to the uninitiated for fear of diminishing their effects.”
Since rock art researchers have long assumed that Bushman shamans induced trance through all-night ritual dancing, the recognition of psychotropic mushroom images in several Tanzanian and the rock painting in this print from southern Africa has far reaching and important implications. Although his research is only preliminary, Cavallo offers the following interpretations.
To a few small alliances of Bushman shamans in different geographical areas, Psilocybe mushrooms offered an edible alternative to all-night ritual dancing for inducing deep trance. Clinical studies show that Psilocybe mushrooms produce strong intoxicating effects that can last up to 7 hours depending on dosage, preparation, and individual metabolism and cause visual, audio, and tactile (somatic) 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. 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 I 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 be 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 their safe-keeping by what might have been a powerful emerging social and religious elite. (Redrawn from J.D. Lewis-Williams, 2002) by J.A. Cavallo).