Dozens of rock art sites in southern New Mexico, recently documented for the first time, are revealing unexpected botanical clues that archaeologists say may help unlock the meaning of the ancient abstract paintings.
Over a swath of the Chihuahuan Desert stretching from Carlsbad to Las Cruces, at least 24 rock art panels have been found bearing the same distinctive pictographs: repeated series of triangles painted in combinations of red, yellow, and black.
And at each of these sites, archaeologists have noticed similarities not just on the rock, but in the ground.
Hallucinogenic plants were found growing beneath the triangle designs, including a particularly potent species of wild tobacco and the potentially deadly psychedelic known as datura.
Researchers believe that the plants may be a kind of living artifact, left there nearly a thousand years ago by shamans who smoked the leaves of the plants in preparation for their painting.
“I think almost certainly that they’re trancing on this stuff,” said Dr. Lawrence Loendorf, president of the archaeological firm Sacred Sites Research, of the ancient artisans.
“I think there’s a real good chance that they’re using tobacco in large enough amounts that they’re going into altered states of consciousness, and I think that’s how [the hallucinogenic plants] are getting there.
“[They’re] getting to those sites because they were used for special ceremonial purposes.”