Cave in Spain – Selva Pascuala is a prehistoric archeological site in Spain with fungoid rock art. An upcoming article in Economic Botany reports on recent study there by an international multidisciplinary team. Research united archeologist Juan Ruiz, foremost expert on this site, with mycologists including Gaston Guzman, the leading authority on Psilocybe. Results suggest post-Paleolithic ritual use of psychoactive fungi. Comparison of local fungi with the fungal pictographs even pointed to Psilocybe hispanica as possibly the species depicted there. MTJ previews findings with the corresponding author, who first learned of the site thanks to his co-authors Carl Ruck and Alan Piper.
The mushrooms of Selva Pascuala in situ
Photo courtesy of Juan Francisco Ruiz López
A Prehistoric Mural in Spain Depicting NeurotropicPsilocybeMushrooms?
The Selva Pascuala mural, a work of post-Paleolithic rock art in Spain, contains fungoid figures herein hypothesized to depict neurotropic fungi, especially Psilocybe hispanica, a species that occurs in a neighboring region. This hypothesis is based on features of these figures related to fungal morphology, along with ethnographic analogy, and shamanistic explanations of rock art. If correct, this interpretation would support inference of prehistoric utilization of this fungus in the region. The mural represents the first direct evidence for possible ritual use of Psilocybe in prehistoric Europe.
Ritual use of neurotropic fungi has been noted in several culture areas, most notably Mexico and Siberia. Almost 20 Psilocybe species have been used in shamanistic rites in Mexico (Guzmán 2008). In Siberia, shamans have made similar use of fly agaric, Amanita muscaria(L.:Fr.) Pers., a neurotropic fungus with pharmacology differing from that of Psilocybe.
These historic traditions of native Mexico and Siberia are well documented, but their cultural origins are unclear. Archaeological artifacts including ceramics from northwest Mexico, plus the so-called mushroom stones associated with the Mayan Classic and Preclassic periods, have been interpreted as evidence for usage of neurotropic fungi in Mesoamerica spanning more than 2,000 years (Borhegyi 1961; Furst 1974). Based on their studies, Wasson and Wasson (1957) suggested even greater antiquity for such practices, and proposed similar traditions were likely more common and widespread in prehistory. (For a recent critique of Wasson and Wasson , see Letcher 2006.)
Based on its combination of Levantine and Schematic elements, the Selva Pascuala mural is likely to have originated with more than one artist in successive episodes of painting activity. Its interpretation must be qualified by indications it underwent a process of re-elaboration over time. At the center of the scene, animals are dominant. There are two large bulls, one of which has almost disappeared, plus a deer and several human figures. These are rendered in Levantine style and probably trace to an earlier stage, based on their central position. Several Schematic figures appear around the edge of the mural, apparently added later and without disturbing the previous composition. Some of them, including the mushroom-like pictographs studied here, play an apparent role more typical of Levantine human figures, being placed toward the margin, around the central portion in which animal figures predominate.
The Selva Pascuala rock shelter is a landscape formation in eastern Spain discovered by an archeologist in 1918, with prehistoric painted rock art; two panels including the one of interest, a mural prominently featuring mushrooms and a bull. It’s one of a couple dozen similar sites with Mesolithic-Neolithic rock art in Spain’s Mediterranean basin. The styles and content of this post-Paleolithic art in eastern Spain recall the older, more famous Paleolithic cave art, except it doesn’t illustrate species that went extinct after the Ice Age ended and it’s not found deep in caves, more open sites being typical. I was pretty startled when Selva Pascuala was brought to my attention, with its remarkably expressive art style, and this fungal angle. If ever there was archeo evidence on fungi – especially psychoactive in regional European prehistory, that could perhaps stand up to hard peer review for proper critical presentation as such – it looked like this might be it.
The authors thank Gastón Guzmán for his identification of the mural fungi, plus members of his team—especially Florencia Ramirez-Guillen and Manuel Hernandez. We thank the authorities at the Institute of Ecology (Veracruz, Mexico) for their support. We also thank Juan Francisco Jordán Montes and José Alfredo González Celdrán for their involvement and onsite assistance to Carl Ruck and Alan Piper; and John Moeller for help obtaining literature sources.
Spain is interesting territory for ethnomycology. I think Wasson’s observation of sharp differences of tradition, mycophilic and mycophobic, has some merit. But to explain the pattern, and this ambiguously charged stimulus fungi seemingly present, is a whole ‘nother magilla. And of course there’s more to the story of fungi across culture than the fallout of mind-altering types. Our site expert and co-author, archeologist extraordinaire Juan Ruiz, isn’t convinced myco-cultural prehistory is the root of it all.
He considers differences in fungal attitudes between Basque, Catalon and Castilian (the latter reckoned mycophobic by Wasson) may not be so sharp, and variation in vocabulary and customs, etc., may correlate primarily with contrasting ecosystems of their home turf. Richly forested biomes offer more edible and thus commercially valuable species. Native peoples in such regions may appear more mycophilic simply because more fungal resources are readily available to them, he notes. An interesting field study might be done in Spain; strikes me as an intriguing part of the world for such questions.
Another prehistoric fungal rock art site fortunately hasn’t been so propagandized. It was found in northern Siberia by a Russian anthropologist, Dikov, on rocky formations in the Pegtymel River region. I don’t know of any radiocarbon dates, but it’s judged as prehistoric based on lichen growth and archeological sequences, regional styles. It’s not as old as Selva Pascuala and, again, the graphic style is pretty abstract. But the region is well noted for fly agaric traditions. Shamanism there may likely be of Paleo-Siberian origin, based in part on cultural comparisons in N. America.