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Ceramic Evidence for the Prehistoric Use of Datura in Mexico and the Southwestern

United States
Author(s): William Joseph Litzinger
Source: Kiva, Vol. 44, No. 2/3, First Annual Conference on Ethnobiology in Honor of
Lyndon L. Hargrave (Winter - Spring, 1979), pp. 145-158
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of the Arizona Archaeological and Historical
Society
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/30245974
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THE KIVA, Vol. 44, No. 2-3, 1979

CERAMIC EVIDENCE FOR THE PREHISTORIC USE OF


DA TURA IN MEXICO AND THE SOUTHWESTERN
UNITED STATES

WILLIAM JOSEPH LITZINGER

Department of E.P.O. Biology


University of Colorado

INTRODUCTION

The medicinal and ceremonial use of the genus Datura in North Am


was first recorded four centuries ago by the early Spanish chroniclers
Mexico (Schultes 1970). Not until the present century, however, has
subject received any serious attention. Datura has now come to be recogn
by anthropologists and ethnobotanists as one of the most importan
widely distributed ceremonial and medicinal plant groups known in abori
North America. Striking similarities in the use of this genus among soc
groups over a widespread area suggest a possible common origin and serv
establish pre-Columbian cultural and historical connections which r
geographically from the southwestern United States continuously to no
western South America (Kroeber 1925; Le Barre 1938).
Considering the widespread use of Datura and that diverse aborig
groups ascribe its use to be very ancient in their cultures (Schultes 197
would seem that Datura use goes far back in North American prehis
Unfortunately there have been relatively few archaeological reports of D
to support this view. Existing evidence is geographically limited to
prehistoric Southwestern pueblos where paleobotanical remains of D
have been identified (Yarnell 1959; Cutler and Bower 1961; Gleichman 1
and Woosley 1977). Nevertheless, it cannot be suggested on the basis of
data that the Southwest was the only area where Datura was used
prehistoric times. To the contrary, Yarnell (1959) suggests that t
Southwestern record indicates a spread of Datura use among the prehis
pueblos from the more highly developed Mexican cultures to the south
concurs with Kroeber's (1925) hypothesis for the origin of Datura cerem
nialism in central and southern California.
It seems clear that our knowledge of Datura in the archaeological re
is not complete. The present evidence is entirely based on paleobota
remains, and no other types of artifacts have been reported which can
associated with its use. There is now evidence, discussed below, to sugges
existence of a type of prehistoric object which may very well be associ

145

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146 LITZINGER

with Datura use. This


representations of the c
produced in connection
The systematics of th
problems, as the status
1959a,b). Most of the
generally characterized
"funnel-shaped" corol
capsules (Figure 1). Th
appears in the literatur
most common and wide
from central and south
Colorado, to Texas and
this species are known
1959).
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the genus Datura is the extent to
which human beings are involved in the dispersal of these plants. Avery and
others (1959) state that none of the species of Datura are presently known to
exist in the natural state outside of human influence. Indeed, the sole method
of dispersal may be by direct or indirect human action. The most common
habitats in which species of Datura are found (except forms purposely
cultivated) are trash heaps, roadsides, ditches, abandoned fields, and other
waste places. Human involvement with Datura tends to complicate the
already problematic systematics of this genus, a factor which botanists are
only recently beginning to consider.

Ix

Figure 1. Fruit of Datura inoxia Miller.

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Prehistoric Use of Datura 147

The active principles found in most, if not a


piperidine derived tropane alkaloids, chiefly hy
isomers atropine and scopolamine. These su
employed in modern medicine mainly as ant
been prescribed as antispasmodics, sedatives, m
emetics, local anesthetics, and in the treatm
convulsions, fractures, tumors, vertigo, and se
tropane alkaloids in higher dosages are known
ized by vivid auditory and visual hallucinations
changes, and profound dementia. Fatal toxicity
failure caused by depression of the parasympath

ETHNOGRAPHIC CONSIDERATIONS

When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico they soon became aware of


widespread use of hallucinogenic plants in aboriginal medicinal an
monial practices. They saw the effects of these plants as "machination
Evil One" and sought especially to extirpate their use as part o
subsequent fanatical destruction of the native culture and impos
European social order and religion (Wasson 1963). Fortunately for cu
historians, some of the Spaniards became genuinely interested in rec
the unadulterated culture of the vanquished Mexicans. Their writings
us with one of the few glimpses we have of the precontact Mexican
view. The 16th century account by Hernandez (1959) of the medicina
of New Spain is perhaps the most accurate aboriginal record of Datu
that has been preserved. Known to the Aztec as tolatzin, which l
translates from Nahuatl as "inclined head," in reference to the nodd
capsules found in the more common species, or nacasul for the resem
of its flat seeds to a miniature human ear, the rank smelling herb wit
globose fruits cannot be mistaken for any other plant. Datura was h
esteemed for its therapeutic value. The dried seeds were ground and
with pitch, then used in setting bones and treating all types of spra
dislocations. Poultices made from the leaves were applied external
anodyne, but extreme care was advised, as excessive amounts were k
cause patients to become mad and seized with "various and vain i
tions."
It must be understood that for most native North Americans me
magic, and ritual are often inseparable. Disease in most cases is consi
have supernatural causes inflicted on a victim by an offended supern
being, or by malevolent sorcery and witchcraft. Often a specialist co

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148 LITZINGER

by a patient does not tr


the unseen force respo
behalf (Del Pozo 1965).
Aztec society. Some w
encompassing sorcery,
monies. Others were sk
and experienced in diag
drug qualities of Datu
occurrence of both m
exclusive right to admin
among the historic Sou
(Kroeber 1925). The a
reference to the supern
description to Hernande
ways, or may have shun
Judging from the elem
medical specialist or "g
the esteemed Spanish c
1965:67-68):
The physician (Nahuatl: ticitl) used to cure diseases and restore health; the
good physician is a knower of herbs, stones, trees, and roots, experienced in
cures. He also has the profession of knowing how to set bones of people, purge
them, bleed them, to make incisions in them, to sew the wounds, and to free
people from the doors of death. The bad physician because he is not able, in
place of curing patients, worsens them with his potions. At times he uses
sorceries and superstitions to make believe that he makes good cures.

Data concerning Datura use among a number of North American


aboriginal cultures are presented in Table 1. The categories selected are those
most commonly specified in the ethnographic record. As with the Spanish
accounts, the modern ethnographic record of Datura use must be viewed with
regard to the possible reluctance of native informants to freely discuss
ceremonial and spiritual aspects of their culture. This may explain the absence
of reported usage among Jemez, Tewa, and Isleta pueblos and limited reports
among other groups.
Most of the medicinal uses of Datura are self-explanatory. A comment
should be made concerning diagnostic visions, however. This refers to the
taking of Datura by either the patient or the practitioner for the purpose of
seeking visions from which the cause of illness may be interpreted, and thus
differs from the ritual category of divination, which refers to finding lost
objects or stolen objects, seeing into the future, and necromancy.
The ethnographic record offers little in the way of tangible evidence for
Datura use. Most accounts refer to its usage only and make no reference to

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(h ro (% 03 0

~.CV)

a)v

L.\

_C0icS'
IAp 0c-NE'

5.4,2cmEC0
Srmcn0 ~a)cUD0-e'"

AL

Ln4aE'c jcN0)C~-

OC.)aVQ,*
0mCZ3-cF +,aTE0-)mCOL
o:NO>xC0

UseCgoriXN>

.aciremAhtoNnuDfsdS1lbT

-(.CnZINseirogtaU
MEDICNAL
xenydoa xcitpesna fractues,pinx xtneilomar nervix xsnoivctgad humantoxi? medicnal(uspf)x sedativx

RITUAL
xnoita devinatox xliks,cugnatbo xcirohpue xnegoiculah x?detnsrpylaiomc mythicalrefnsx? xtropenub,dzigc

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150 LITZINGER

any paraphernalia associat


(1920) of Jacinto de la Se
use by the Aztec priest
concerns the use of pe
ololiuhqui (Rivea corymbr
misidentifies as Datura (S
due to the mention in th
seem an apt description
compared with the globo
however, seems very gen
one species of plant, as
quoted by Safford (1920:

These seeds, especially the


though they were God, bu
small petaquillas, or boxes,
sacrificial offerings to them
over them or in other secr
made for them they cann
between the idolillos of the
it were, chained to them. An
that when those who keep
asked for the paraphernali
drink, such as the tecomatil
the seeds themselves they
knowledge of the matter wh
whom they are arraigned as
which they do not wish to affront by a public demonstration of the
ceremonial use of them, burning the seeds, etc.

The mention of "petaquillas" or boxes made especially for the purpose of


holding venerated seeds of ceremonial plants is the most important aspect of
the above account with respect to the present discussion. Although it would
be desirable to have a description of the "petaquillas," their existance in the
material culture cannot be overlooked.

ARCHAEOLOGICAL CONSIDERATIONS

The important question raised by de la Serna's account is whether or


the "petaquillas" employed by the 16th century Aztec occur in
archaeological record, and if so, how can they be identified? Also, given
Datura seeds were kept in these special containers by the Aztec, could t
objects be expected in the material culture of all the groups who ut
Datura in so many other similar ways?
A number of prehistoric ceramic vessels described as having a "spike
"hobnail" surface treatment have been examined. It is thought that ma
these forms, such as the pieces shown in Figure 2, bear more th
superficial likeness to the spiny fruit found in most North American me

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Prehistoric Use of Datura 151

5 c m

51m

5 cm

kwkC

5 c m

Figure 2. Several "spiked" ceramic vessels from Mexico


United States: a) lidded-jar from La Cuenca del Blas
Nacional de Anthropologia, Mexico City), b) small co
Colorado (Mesa Verde Research Lab.), c) small olla with sandstone lid,
Mockingbird Mesa, southwestern Colorado (Center for Southwestern Studies,
Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado), d) small container from location
near Lowry Ruin, southwestern Colorado (private collection of Mr. and Mrs.
John Pock, Pleasant View, Colorado).

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152 LITZINGER

of the genus Datura (illus


common species, Datura
these ceramic pieces alone
indeed represent Datura fr
lidded jar depicted in F
representation of a Datur
persistent calyx that form
leaves little doubt that the
In a preliminary surve
prehistoric ceramics in
private collections in Me
facts concerning these sp
found that there are only
bearing the "spiked" sur
depicted in Figure 3. Seco
geographical distribution
use Datura, but not among
By far the most numero
3b), and it seems likel
"petaquillas" described by
mostly limited to various
3c, 3d), incensarios (Figur
(Figure 3e). The relation
problematic with regard t
lidded jars, bowls, and ev
indicated, although it is p
nonfunctional. The func
enigma, however. One pos
perhaps that the bells wer
Figure 3g. The bells, whic
have been used to collect
would such a method of a
pipe, or direct inhalation
effective? Perhaps becaus
practitioner to administ
perhaps to keep a patien
involved surgical operation
possible among the 16th c
use of Datura' among the
the above hypothesis is am
over smoldering Datura le

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Prehistoric Use of Datura 153

d
e

AA A'
JAAAAA

AN4

ioi

f 90

20
20 cm
cm

Figure 3. Most common forms of spiked ceramic vessels in Mexico and the
southwestern United States.

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154 LITZINGER

The bell-shaped vessel co


the Datura fruit form, a
Reports ranging from
Colorado (Hays and Lanc
of these spiked ceramic f
were found to be most c
great many elaborations
ceramic vessels are consi
(Dorothy K. Washburn,
by Gladwin (1937), Ha
(1944) noted that "spik
prehistoric sites in north
pueblo area is indicative
main evidence for this h
Plate CXXXVII), who n
common in the late Sede
obvious evidence of M
introduction of canal irr
ballcourts and ceremonia
Contemporaneous with
town is the report by
southwestern Colorado,
During the excavation
House on Wetherill Mesa
rows of spike-like proje
vessels from the Mesa Ve
first of these, depicted i
Mockingbird Mesa, nort
Colorado. Although the s
is a common coarse-tem
logically without additio
able. Nevertheless it is m
Pueblo period (about A
(Figure 2d) was found in
1936) on upper Cajon Me
and others (1974) and W
late Pueblo II or early Pu
(about A.D. 1050-1200)

CONCLUSION

Datura use is seen as an important element among North Amer


aboriginal cultures. This is especially true in Mexico and the southweste

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Prehistoric Use of Datura 155

United States where records of the use of this gen


it has now been shown that the "spiked" ceramic
indicators of prehistoric Datura use, further study
seen as an important consideration for understan
cultural and historical relationships in this area.
It is possible that Datura use is much older
paleobotanical or ceramic evidence indicates. It see
the strong physical effects of this genus would ha
the ancient inhabitants of North America. Mos
considered as part of the Archaic tradition w
apparently extended over much of North Ame
aspects of the ritual and medicinal use of Datu
origins, however, and because Datura was already
the spread of these traits may have been facilitated
Datura is one of the few plant groups which ha
throughout the world since very ancient times
(Harner 1973) and Asiatic (Castiglioni 1943) us
recorded in aboriginal America raise many questio
and diffussion of certain aspects of its use, and em
expand the study of this phenomenon.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Research for this study was carried out at the Mueso National de Mexico;
Mueso Frissell de Arte Zapoteca, Mitla, Oaxaca, Mexico; the Mesa Verde Research
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado; the Center for Southwestern Studies at Fort
College, Durango, Colorado; and with the private collection of Mr. and Mrs. John
Pleasant View, Colorado. A number of private collections were also viewed in Me
Botanical material was studied at the following international herbaria: MEXU (Her
Nacional del Instituto de Biologia, Universidad Nacional de Mexico, and RM (Ro
Mountain Herbarium, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming).
I am greatly indebted to the following individuals' helpful criticism, without w
this paper would never have been completed: Robert A. Bye, Joseph A. Hester,
Ingmanson, Dale T. Leslie, Mr. and Mrs. John Pock, Dori Partsch, and Nancy J. Sim

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