A Cave In Spain Contains the Earliest Known Depictions of Mushrooms

by Brian Akers

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 Selva Pascuala rock painting, with bull at upper left and mushrooms lower right. Photo by Alan Piper

The Selva Pascuala rock painting, with bull at upper left and mushrooms lower right
Photo by Alan Piper

Leon: Can you tell a bit about this discovery, what’s actually there? If we just start arguing medias res no one’s going to know what we’re talking about.
Brian: 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.

Selva mushrooms on their own Photo courtesy of Juan Francisco Ruiz López

Selva mushrooms on their own
Photo courtesy of Juan Francisco Ruiz López

Aha! Hmm… some of those look like mushrooms; some of them don’t. Interesting.

Broken mushroom images of Selva Pascuala Photo courtesy of Juan Francisco Ruiz López

Broken mushroom images of Selva Pascuala
Photo courtesy of Juan Francisco Ruiz López

Ah; but when is “look like” reliable, versus deceptive? And which way might we more likely be fooled, in that case? Good point you raise: what are we seeing here in the mural? Perhaps the evidence itself can shed light; as I think it must. In that vein, see what you think about this close-up shot, zeroed in on caps in doubt.
That’s Triassic sandstone, not the most durable rock. And these figures are 6-8K years old, from carbon dating. Just think of the elements working their evil hand on that surface over that long haul of time! What we see is nothing pristine, only what’s left. Where caps are missing we can see cratered pockmarks, rock face lost to the ravages of time and natural processes.

The mushrooms of Selva Pascuala in situ Photo courtesy of Juan Francisco Ruiz López

The mushrooms of Selva Pascuala in situ
Photo courtesy of Juan Francisco Ruiz López

Some of the figures are fairly well preserved, good data points. But beware of others that are more worn, inviting misimpression. Stalks are mostly intact, but – it’s like that old bumper sticker says: depileation happens. Erosion has made some mischief here; that minx, what a lively sense of humor. Long story short, the case of the purloined pilei proves something of a red herring; a Scooby-Doo caper by Mother Nature and her gang (she might have gotten away with it too, if not for those meddling kids).

But your larger point is crucial: are these mushrooms we see before us? – the very heart of the matter. Perhaps we could instead determine the figures are abstract ‘signs’ we can’t ‘decode;’ and any resemblance to actual fungi, living or dead, is purely coincidental, or in the eye of the beholder? Indeed, how can we be sure the bull is a bull, for that matter? Maybe in some essential sense it’s really an enigmatic figure; onto which we unwittingly project a culturally arbitrary notion “bull,” imaginatively – like seeing shapes in clouds, perhaps? Maybe everything is ‘just a social construct?’ Sort of like evolution, ‘just a theory’? What if, objectively speaking of course, there’s no such thing as objectivity? Is everything relative, absolutely? I can get a bit apprehensive of slipping through a looking glass at some point, following deliberation along some lines.

Nothing against rationalism (as opposed to rationality); or torture of reason, clever rhetoric, whatever. But golly, what about evidence? The mural shows not one or two, but thirteen figures in a row; which affords pretty good comparison. And as we can see, it’s no mere static repetition of some abstract motif or design logo. True, it’s not photo realism. But it distinctly illustrates a range of interesting variation in the stalk and cap, resembling individual differences in actual specimens, whatever species. I don’t think you have to be a mycologist to see that; but it couldn’t hurt ;-).

It’s this richer, more myco-detailed information in the mural, along with the generally mushroom-like appearance, that I think speaks for itself. There’s really quite a bit there to explain. I’d welcome a plausible alternative hypothesis; or a statistical test.
Not to tout science, but I find the better emphasis rests in good data, no matter what theory it supports. Front burner: evidence. Otherwise, we can slip into ‘believe it or not.’ Its too easy to get swept away by theorizing, rhetoric, hermeneutics – tools of philosophy predating the scientific revolution. Ecce homo.

I do see your point about the variability of the rock images matching the variability in the mushroom. That’s quite nice! But I don’t know about the psychotropic interpretation – there are no rainbows emerging from the mushrooms, after all; and certainly the mammals in the picture aren’t psychotropic.

Many a true word is spoken in jest. And once again, you touch on key points – did you mean to do that? One might be a general premise, that the modern counterpart of native ritualism is our carefree, ever-loving rainbow counterculture. The Indians are trippers, dude; and Selva Pascuala points to stone age stoners, right? Such a notion may hold some romantic appeal to our inner psychedelic caveman. And it offers news copyists an angle – which makes it the story, no?

Well, popular fancy aside, I don’t know of any indigenous concept of being a ‘tripper’ (or not). Native customs aren’t some freaky-radical, far out thing. Shamans are more like – square. They carry the old folks’ seal of approval; any fungi involved, too. Native rites aren’t against a mainstream, like some generation gap or rebellion (much less partying!). They’re deeply rooted, within norms, and uphold what the old folks say; consultation services of a specialist with both ritual and material business aspects. Going to church, or the doctor, native style, might be a better analogy than a Dead concert, or Burning Man (or rave, ‘acid test’ etc.).

It’s a subtle point; all nuance. Even some anthropologists have said things like: “Psychedelics may be new to modern society, but users seldom realize they’re merely reverting to ancient, traditional practices.” Well, same type fungi may figure in both settings, true. And such an idea may be stimulating. But I find a fundamental contrast, not comparison, between native contexts of usage and the contemporary subculture of popular interest – psychedelia. To me they seem fairly unrelated cultural patterns, even opposite. So for our post-Paleo mural, I’m not sure how much of a test we can get from rainbows. I know you’re kidding to a degree, and I don’t mean to sound all serious. But you deftly touch on some things aswirl in the mix here.

True, the herbivores aren’t even psychoactive; but I bet they’re still righteous smoke (mmm bbq). Seems a safe bet those species were present in that locale back when too, along with any fungi the mural portrays. Just to make sure you know, Psilocybe hispanica happens to be coprophilic; grows in manure too. Sheer synchronicity; maybe. Or were you just having a l’il fun?

My remarks were playful, but the serious portion of them would be that it’s hard to see how one could narrow those illustrations down to any particular mushroom? They are, after all, quintessential LBMs – just brown pigment in a mushroom shape!

A cluster of Psilocybe hispanica in horse dung. The caps are light brown, and some of them are showing dark purplish spore deposits dropped by other mushrooms in the group. Photo by Ignacio Serál

A cluster of Psilocybe hispanica in horse dung. The caps are light brown, and some of them are showing dark purplish spore deposits dropped by other mushrooms in the group.
Photo by Ignacio Serál

Funny, what my field guide says: “Psilocybe hispanica is the quintessential LBM!” Next question? Sorry; trying to kid. Of course you’re so right again. Armchair theorists might roll eyeballs, go ‘humbug’ at any suggestion, even the most general, of mushrooms in rock art – but now, species? They’d have a field day. Surely no evidence could bear the weight of such a claim; and water boarding needed to force it in the first place! But you word it right and well I think, as a “how” question. Any answer must logically lie in method; otherwise Rorschach effect awaits. We get any result we want that way. Ancient astronauts, anyone? Evidence resides not in arguments, or how something looks to us (whoever we are), but what can be shown or demonstrated.

In this case, it boils down to visible, verifiable similarities between the figures in the mural, and regional Psilocybe species. Specifically, Gastón Guzmán alerted us to this Psilocybe hispanica, its manure habitat (a possible link to the mural’s bull), and overall match with the pictographs. He cited P. semilanceata too, as a better-known species more widely distributed. But he noted it has a typically narrower pileus than P. hispanica, and a more acute apex, thus resembling the mural less closely; nor does it grow in manure.

Broad-capped Psilocybe semilanceata from nearby Spai.n Photo by Ignacio Serál

Broad-capped Psilocybe semilanceata from nearby Spain
Photo by Ignacio Serál

Since publication, I’ve heard from Ignacio Serál, who lives in P. hispanica’s neighborhood (Aragon region). In fact it was Ignacio who discovered it, and brought it to Guzmán’s attention (through Jonathon Ott, I’m told). Ignacio would be thrilled if that’s his mushroom in the mural; but he notes P. semilanceata can also have a somewhat broadly bell shaped cap, like the figures. And, he suggests its more acute apex is just too fine a point (ahem) to hold much weight of analysis; which is only sensible I think, especially considering the graphic style and technique of the fungographs (not as fine-tipped as the bull). Above all he points out, although P. semilanceata may not grow in manure, it has a definite preference for manured grounds, where in fact its common. So it could be related to the mural’s bull by common habitat, just as well as a coprophilic species. In fact, P. hispanica has been found at only one locale so far, about 170 miles from Selva; and only in horse manure not cattle. True, coprobic species can usually grow in either. Bottom line, insufficient data; inconclusive. So I can only agree, there’s good reason not to over-emphasize any one species, and better not to sharpen that pencil lead too much. That the area harbors species matching the mural, rather markedly, is the important finding; the core hypothesis being that the mural portrays genus Psilocybe.

With its wide distribution, P. semilanceata has long had a place in post-Wasson notions of mushroom rites in prehistoric Europe. Nor is close encounter with it unlikely, as a 1799 poisoning case of record may reflect (Sowerby 1803, for myco-hardcores). Seems its path has crossed ours, well before the advent of magic mushroom hunting. Big picture is, at least two regional Psilocybe species have features similar to the pictographs, both found in manured fields. And ethnographically, I doubt our post-Paleolithic Pascualans would have necessarily differentiated one from the other, as in our species concepts and classification.

Well, it seems a bit disingenuous to say that your interpretation of the painted mushrooms as hallucinogenic was vindicated Gaston Guzman’s ID of them as P. hispanica. Of course he’s an expert, but you decided to enlist him and not, say, Maj Padamsee, our current expert in Psathyrella. When you asked Gaston for an opinion, you could be pretty sure that he wasn’t going to say “You know, I just don’t think it’s a Psilocybe; I think it’s some other sort of LBM.”

Looking back, maybe I could have been sure, as you say – if such a thought (or worry?) had crossed my mind! But I didn’t have any prior frame for what or how Guzman might advise or not. I was certainly interested to know, of course, and meant to find out. I figured the mural would be of interest to him in any case, and considered him the source par excellénce for possible comparison with Psilocybe. That there might well be one seemed clear; but I didn’t explicitly ask him, “Do you think …?” I figured no need; that question was in plain view, written right there on that wall (so to speak).

I don’t know Maj Padamsee, though I’d be delighted; any mycological input on our mural would be of interest. But the idea that it illustrates Psilocybe goes well beyond graphic details that visibly match, beyond mycology itself, to the anthropology of fungi and the cross-cultural profile of Psilocybe; especially compared with something like Psathyrella. True as you hint, these genera look LBM-alike, but – they’re miles apart ethnographically.

Not that Psilocybe ritualism is widespread, but it does exist. And it’s no freak. It has its context, analogies; it ties in squarely to larger cultural patterns. By comparison, I don’t know of any rites particular to Psathyrella across culture, nor even many secular applications. The Haitian ‘djon-djon’ [Psathyrella that is a popular edible mushroom there], is an exception; but I wonder if that’s deep-rooted tradition, or does it mainly reflect history, local poverty, resource crisis (nothing to eat?).

Various fungi are widely depicted of course, endlessly celebrated in art; but mainly in mundane, non-ritual contexts. Hallucinogenic-looking fungi may slip into kitchen decor, if they’re pretty enough (depending on the kitchen?). But its hard to conceive a taxon of such scant cultural presence as Psathyrella sneaking into rock art. I’d agree though, it would have to be considered – if fungal morphology were all we had to go on, unaided by a bigger picture from ethnography, regional and site archeology. But this is why the broad interdisciplinary framework is vital for study here. I’d suggest a non-psychoactive LBM is simply unlikely – but on more specifically cross-cultural, rather than mycological, considerations.

It may seem a bit silly for prehistoric people to get all excited about a Psathyrella, or a Conocybe, or whatever, but we don’t know what tastes they had. Larry Millman did a stint with former headhunters in Borneo, and found that their favorite edibles were Xylaria polymorpha (when young and just emerging: “pig’s nipples”) and Calostoma cinnabarina (pig’s eyeball; they seem to have a thing for pigs). On one walk, they found a large Agaricus. Larry got all happy over it and told them how popular it was in America, and the head-hunters got all embarrassed and had to work real hard to find tactful things to say about our strange custom.

Whoa, hip ethnomycographic data. What a difference it makes when a cross-cultural observer knows an actual fruiting body from a carpophore. Sounds like he gave those ex-headhunters a nice little cultural moment too. Chalk up another Agaricus-related faux pas? But if they eat dead man’s fingers, does that make them cannibals as well? Ah, the varied customs of different peoples. Strange in general, and food-wise; ‘fungal delicacies’ too. Well, you tell Larry Millman’s Bornean friends they must not have read wikipedia on Xylaria polymorpha; it plainly says: “inedible.” Which letter of that word do they not understand? But now what’s this stirring; curiosity, to – taste it?

No slight to strangeness. Hey, how about our popular contemporary ‘mushroom hunting’ culture pattern? You know, the one we know and love, excitedly share; spread like a disease if we can? Shall we compare such passion to a summer fugu feast? Well, I’m sure every culture has its “extreme sports” (not always culinary), ways of walking the proverbial razor’s edge, laughing in the face of death. I love my wild fungal goodies, I consider the hours I spend porcini-hunting golden. But is it risky; shall we count the ways? The customs, the species; take our weird celebration of Laetiporus for some choice edible fungus – please! Ok it tastes real good. And many can eat it without ill effect to whatever degree. But it has sure sickened some; I can testify (can I get a witness?). Only one confirmed kill on record for it, or at least, reported in NAMA’s 30-year study.

But I gather our headhunter data concern food procurement, a general economic-subsistence activity. I’d emphasize that as a secular rather than ritual function. And the archeo data are important here, because our mural’s signification rests on the interpretation of the entire site. It’s possible the figures have no ritual meaning, but I suggest it’s unlikely. For one thing, neither these painted rock shelters in Spain, nor the caves with Paleolithic art, were habitation sites.

The Torre Balbina, a spike of stone on the ridge overlooking the Selva Pascuala cave. Photo by Juan Francisco Ruiz López

The Torre Balbina, a spike of stone on the ridge overlooking the Selva Pascuala cave. Photo by Juan Francisco Ruiz López

Contrary to a scene from ONE MILLION YEARS BC, etc, nobody was living at these places, decorating their domicile. These are remote, austere locations, far from the beaten path and difficult to reach – even hazardous. Visiting them would be serious business, on clear intent. To just see it, gawk? A consensus has been emerging among specialists over decades that these sites generally reflect some sort of magico-religious use and meaning, likely including shamanistic. You’ve read up Lascaux, I bet, ideas about it; “scene of the dead man” there – he’s nawt dead he’s tranced out (?).
As you astutely intimate, fungal customs across culture are a many-splendored thing; and we need more data to improve our basis for comparative analysis. Still, perhaps we know enough to ask what kind of fool prehistoric ritual site would feature iconography of fungi merely edible rather than psychotropic (no matter how delicious)? In its cultural context, Selva Pascuala likely reflects not culinary but rather ritual use of fungi. But I must say you frame the questions superbly, bringing greater clarity to them with your solid fungal know-what; no call to dumb down gory details. Indeed, this type inquiry needs cross-cultural myco data like you cite – a refreshing change of pace. More often I see questions ‘jumped,’ raised without well-informed basis; judging by some “oops” glaring myco-bloopers I witness in some of the literature.

Maybe they’re boletes, a yummy food in the area.

Well, now, them’s much better fixin’s for “The Fungal Gourmet Goes Native.” No denying, broader appeal there, rich traditions. But again, the whole ritual aspect… and – hey now, boletes aren’t even LBMs! (are they?) Although hm, not sure now what percent serious you are, and what percent kidding. Or were you playing “both sides against the middle” perhaps (you crafty man)?

I was partly kidding about the boletes; though in that part of Europe I’d be more on the lookout for Lactarius deliciosus if they were going to depict an edible.

“That part of Europe!” You sound so traveled, so worldly. Know the region? Alas, I’m so provincial; just a good old boy. But if we’re back to single species ideas, this mural might be getting to you? Although, following a cross-cultural data trail leads to a more comprehensive framework of myco-ethnology. Maybe another major perspective waits there for our multidisciplinary foundation; one last main angle of lighting maybe, on the relative likelihood an edible fungus would be depicted in this context.

Some anthropologists theorize that subsistence mode, the material adaptation by whatever tools/techniques to whatever food sources, more or less shapes the rest of any culture, i.e., social life, narrative and ritual traditions etc. ‘Cultural materialist’ theory follows from Marx – sort of hailed (in ‘campus rad trad’) as a founding father of social sciences – that our thoughts, beliefs, etc., are largely dictated by our circumstances. Man’s mind does not determine his material conditions; rather, man’s conditions determine his mind – sort of thing. Sounds vaguely Nietzche-esque, recited that way, doesn’t it? Well, those were days, an era of history – “it was a simpler time … “

But certainly, physical sustenance, metabolic nutrition, is fundamental – a bare necessity. And across culture we’ll find a wide gap there, for the relative significance of mushrooms compared to animals and plants: to my knowledge, without exception, no matter what the culture pattern, every society the world over is critically dependent for its survival, exclusively, on plants and animals as food, in whatever proportion. There’s no culture anywhere in which fungi, however consumed or enjoyed, are vital as sources of nourishment. Fungi mostly don’t contain much energy. Like celery and onion, they add a lot of flavor, and may have vitamins and iron. But they don’t pack the carbon nutrition, the digestible proteins, lipids and carbs to serve as staples for our metabolic needs. Various species may be eaten depending on local traditions, which run the gamut. But there’d be no hunger crisis without mushrooms; one of cuisine maybe.
Plants and animals on the other hand, select species (cereal grains, legumes and root crops), have been humanity’s lifeline; still are. They’ve stood between our kind and starvation from before we were bipeds, as they will into futurity. Fungi have claims upon us, but no such importance as that. Rather, the greater cross-cultural mark they’ve made in pre-history seems to stem from the psychoactive effects of certain species, and the resulting cultural interactions or responses, especially in terms of religion, myth and folklore, or story and narrative traditions, etc.

Many anthropologists theorize that shamanism in whatever form(s) was a major foundation of prehistoric culture, ultimately ancestral to medicinal practices and religion as known historically. Consider the significance of the animals shown in rock art for a prehistoric stage: hunting-gathering, nomadic herd-tracking – physical survival totally dependent on those prey, all bets placed there. They don’t have to be psychoactive to be of mortal, ritual importance, and rock art is all about them as we see. Life itself revolves around them. But fungi, to rate sacred, are another matter. So it comes down to their relative economic insignificance – compared with their spiritual-mythic relevance.

I guess it took me a while to get your point about the ritual nature of the site – I was thinking “Well, why should the mushrooms have to be hallucinogenic? The big animals aren’t.” But if I understand you right, you’re saying that mushrooms weren’t an important enough food source to rank up there with bison, etc. on that basis; so if they’re on the wall it must be for another reason, ergo … magicness. Is this indeed your line of reasoning?

Exactly, that’s the delicate intersection point, where our disciplinary perspectives converge, the ethnobiology. I think you get some idea, perhaps, how multi-component the research aspects are. Its challenging, crisscrossing tripwires of divergent fields, each with its technical depth; a lot to take into account, best as we can if possible. Myriad pitfalls, so many wrong moves possible. A regular temple of doom. But I digress …

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.

Though the climate was quite different back then, and perhaps also the trees/mycorrhizal fungi.

Perhaps? Speculation your honor – inadmissible! Actually, good point again, that is a potentially critical factor. We dug into studies on paleoclimate in that part of the world. Whether it was exactly the same as now isn’t clear, and there have been fluctuations even in historic times. But the Ice Age was long over by 6,000 BC. And as our article notes, the paleo-eco evidence indicates modern-like forests were well established by then. We see the mural shows familiar, contemporary animal species; but no extinct Pleistocene megafauna, a difference from older Paleolithic art. As climate fluctuates, ecological zones likely creep up or down in altitude, tracking with any change. But we found no basis in past climate data to question the idea that species known in the region today would not have been present 8K years ago.

Are there other cave-paintings of mushrooms elsewhere? If these are our first/oldest depictions of mushrooms, then surely we should celebrate them regardless of why they were created. Is Selva Pascuala the earliest (reliable) depiction of mushrooms?

There are a few other cases of rock art attributed to some kind of mushroom ritualism. But for reliability, I can’t put anything next to Selva Pascuala. Its naturalistic style of representation, along with the coordinated archeo and myco study, dated by radiocarbon, etc. puts it in a class by itself, for evidence of its kind. I believe that it’s the first such to have garnered critical peer review for proper scientific presentation. As to its age, the only comparison I know of may be rock art in a cave at Tassili, in the Sahara Desert, Algeria, as reported by Samorini. But I’m not sure how secure its dating is compared to post-Paleo rock art of Spain. A popularly published drawing based on one of the Tassili figures has become an icon of post-1990’s psychedelia. But Tassili’s pictorial style isn’t exactly ‘from life.’ It’s nothing even remotely like the semi-naturalistic detail we see at Selva Pascuala. Its vivid but in a different way, abstract-bizarre. Alas, poor Tassili: it’s among the sites favored by ancient ET theorizing; nice competition for mushroom fancies eh?

I’ve seen photos online of the Tassili “bee-headed shaman” and – quite apart from the bee-headedness – he’s drawn as if he’s wearing mittens in the original, which does not stop all the redrawings of him from having several mushrooms sprouting from each hand. I find the leap from one to the other really strange. If that’s the closest competition, then it seems that Selva is by far the oldest mushroom images that we have.

Yes, Tassili is a sitting duck for Ancient Psychonaut Theory. And any similarity to antique aliens may be coincidental or not, based on observations of contemporary subcultural patterns emerging in the wake of events since LSD’s discovery. The term “Martian” appears in Tassili reference by the 1950’s, before von Daniken – but within the flying saucer era. Le Quellec (“Shamans and Martians: The Same Struggle”) compares a ‘shamans everywhere’ trend directly to the search for ‘clues to an ancient extra-terrestrial presence in archeological remains.’ I enjoy imaginative entertainment; but there’s a potential for exploitation that can adversely affect research prospects (Le Quellec speaks of ‘archaeomania’). Various ‘interests’ hover around, hoping to distract, or wanting it to prove something for them. How evidence is handled matters, depending on the purpose. It can become a foundation of understanding, or a banner for a cause; even a sideshow exhibit in a circus.

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.

So, the ethnomyco interpretation of Pegtymel is supported by cross-cultural and regional data; it’s just not as old. Still, a determined armchair theorist can simply argue at any hint of rock art and shamanism, or prehistoric mushroom rites. You can lead a horse to fungal pictographs, but you can’t make it see them? Well if so, I think that’s the horse’s problem.

It’s actually a fight that science has gone through for ages — pretty much the same one that Galileo had to put up with when he showed that objects fall at the same speed (when factoring out air resistance) whereas the standard wisdom at his time was that of course it was logical that heavier objects would fall faster.

Right; and it’s what he could show that frosted that cake, not how it “looked to him” (we’ve each got our little coke bottle lens through which see things, I’m sure). That’s a 24-carat example you cite, of “logic” vs. method; actually checking to see. Like the bear over the mountain; he didn’t sit around philosophizing, much less arguing what he might see if he bothered. He went to the trouble, got up off his bear butt to have a look; did the Galileo. By some of Wasson and company’s work, we might have almost predicted a discovery like Selva Pascuala. But reliability is relative, beyond conclusive test. We’re not saying this is absolutely, 100% certain what was going on. We’re just saying that this is the only explanation that there’s evidence for. More evidence may turn up, showing us to be wrong. But it makes no sense to say “I don’t believe that hypothesis” simply because you’re uncomfortable with the notion of Mesolithic people using Psilocybes in a ritual context.

That’s why fungal expertise is indispensable in such a unique case. Archeology is no exact science. Current understanding mainly reflects disagreement, ruled more by things we don’t know than what we do. Its one theory against another.

Following our co-author, double-aught archeologist Juan Ruiz, rock art studies try so hard to prove things; when the best we might reasonably hope for at present is simply to adduce a solid hypothesis, uncover a forward trail. BTW there are other sites in eastern Spain, similar age, that also have fungoid-looking rock art; some in the vicinity of Selva Pascuala. Found a ‘google image’ pic labeled to one, Peña Escrita (looks like “praying mantis man” near the bottom).

Comparison of painted mushroom with present-day P. hispanica, showing the bent stem Photo of Psilocybe by Ignacio Serál

Comparison of painted mushroom with present-day P. hispanica, showing the bent stem
Photo of Psilocybe by Ignacio Serál

In the Psilocybe photos, I notice the crooked/bent stem on some of them really does resemble the cave paintings and is quite unusual. I see why Gaston made the connection with hispanica. But I have no idea how typical such a stem is for Psilocybe in general. The caps [for hispanica] seem to look very typical for Psilocybes (in my very, very limited experience, mostly with photos).

Ah, preaching to the choir now; music to my ears. I’ve stumbled onto some Psilocybe species in their habitats, but never had any contact, field or herbarium, with Psilocybe hispanica. Nor even close encounters of the Liberty Cap kind, despite how common and widely distributed it reportedly is. But as pics show, P. hispanica does pose a remarkable resemblance to our Selva mural. But a grasp of fungal morphology might be well to fully appreciate the correspondence. Nothing you lack; heck you’ve got that in spades.

But wouldn’t you think, as George Bernard Shaw might affirm: such a point is likely lost on the most vocally opinionated; the very parties who ironically might better heed it. The more we know, usually, the less likely we are to be cocksure, the more interested in just finding out (for peat sake) – versus ‘verbal volleyball,’ debating answers prematurely on false certainty, trying to prove something as if we know, amidst theories in collision.

Candidly: I’ve noticed a few discussions, purportedly critical, trying to argue against possible fungal rites in ancient Europe – and on some, uh, mycologically strange grounds. You wouldn’t believe. One; it seems bold research couldn’t find any records of Psilocybe semilanceata “spoors” (this is published lit, Leon) in databases (no citation) – for prehistoric fauna (italics added, emphasis). Without wondering what sources such research consulted, for methods alone – do you know the word spoor, Leon? Meaning, animal trail? Its embedded in a tangled argument there were ‘almost certainly’ no stone age Psilocybe rites in Europe, because (get this logic) maybe there couldn’t have been – because it wasn’t even there in prehistory (maybe)! Because they couldn’t find any “spoors” to prove it was! So a question not in evidence is simply conjured out of thin air by magic words, “absence of evidence” ginned up by narrative, re-told as “evidence of absence.” Get it (snort)? Forgive the mockery, but I’m outraged by some of the stuff that goes down.

At the other end of the scale for investigative (and intellectual) authenticity, I have to thank my co-authors and colleagues at Selva Pascuala for realizing the scope and caliber of the site warranted a close, concerted myco look-see. I hope they’re pleased with the way it’s turned out. A site like that isn’t found every day. By analogy I think of it almost like the ‘Lucy’ fossil, for its category of evidence.

We’re only just scratching the surface of the world around us. We have miles to go before we sleep; light years. There’s more to discover than can be discovered, more to know than can be known. Arguing theories, trying to persuade whomever that one makes more sense, has its place. Its a grand tradition, inherited from a golden age. But debate can’t take the place of rigorous investigation, following the results wherever they lead. Especially with tools and techniques we have now, methods, instruments; all upon the foundation of centuries to work with, shoulders of giants. Research is inquiry’s cutting edge now, at our present historic stage; what we can discover, not suppose. Fungi are a nice case in point. We barely know them; a circumstance not unrelated, I suggest, to their seeming power and ambiguity as cultural stimuli, from aversion to adoration.

I think we know that any talk of ‘magic mushroom’ rock art can elicit reactions pro or con. Indeed it faces a gauntlet of attitudes, from dismissively dogmatic to uncritically excitable. My co-author Carl takes his share of ribbing over his myco-exuberance, but I have his passion and enthusiasm to thank, among other things, for my invitation to this study. And some points on differing sides may be valid. A distant colleague, specialist in South American shamanism, emphasizes the fine print of questions arising here, the diversity of possibilities a phrase like “rock art shamanism” glosses over, and need for sound ethnographic orientation, not simplistic theoretical framework. What defines shamanism here, primarily? Is it the role and leadership of the ritual specialist? Or is induction of altered consciousness, understood by indigenous concepts of spirits and mythic powers, the central criterion? There are major questions to focus more sharply, an endeavor lost when focus is drawn into arguing over the blunter questions. Amid the fray, theories seems to go a wee bit one-sided at the expense of balance, maybe even tiptoeing around any data inconsistent or conflicting with whatever contention is up to bat, seems to me.

Merely avoiding pitfalls becomes high priority, if so. With the opportunity Selva Pascuala posed, it seemed the important thing would be simply to establish its credibility of study, from rigorous documentation through hard review. If our work makes any progress along such lines, that might be its main value. Now, having passed through its ring of fire, it poses a hard, implicit question: how else to account for the evidence, in all its aspects? The details of the pictographs and the morphology of P. hispanica aren’t matters of theory or some argument, but findings of direct observation (no squinting or scrying); procedures subject to double-check, independent verification. No persuasion, or “believe it or not” routine.

A greater focus on methods and findings, versus arguing theories pro or con, would seem a promising avenue to advancement for this subject. If our little study, by its emphasis on concerted interdisciplinary study and findings, can find its way through the maze of conflicting arguments, each vulnerable to criticism for bias, perhaps it takes one small step. Seems to me hypotheses of whatever kind are much likelier tempered by doubt, than conviction.

I did read a while back that the idea has gained currency in paleoanthropological circles that quite a bit of the paintings/ markings in caves were done by teenagers, much for the same impulses that teenagers write on walls today.

While it’s not prehistoric, ancient wall graffiti has been found in classical ruins – less likely the handiwork of old folks than young (at heart anyway?). But I’d distinguish that categorically from religious iconography, which is what we seem to have in the rock art of prehistoric Europe. No doubt, rock art studies reflect quite a range of notions, discussion points like you cite. I’m no expert, but on impression the whole subject seems complex, and fertile with dubious ideas easy to get. Theorizing has grown downright lively over the years; in fact its increasingly described as “contentious.” Amid its swirls and eddies I’ve also seen “doodling” cited; like on a note pad, talking on the phone, maybe sitting on the couch. I wonder about some of the discussions, which often have a sound such as “nobody can prove …” (or “prove otherwise”). That’s not evidence, that’s the old “we don’t know, so…” -type argument from ignorance. The intractability of some approaches may be their main lesson to the wary (if we but heed).

Arch-musings may appeal mainly to the “rationalism” of armchair theorists: our temporally provincial, proudly skeptical, thoroughly modern mindset. But for theory, a lot of these ideas prove unexpectedly illogical – ancient astronauts in reverse, almost. Significant energy and resources were expended to create and attend Selva Pascuala and other such sites. Nothing quite on the scale of the Great Pyramid – we’re talking stone age hunters here, nomadic subsistence-settlement, undergoing transition to the Neolithic over centuries, in the prehistoric Mediterranean’s unfashionable West End. But we can detect a pattern, well beyond relief of boredom or anything casual, random or impulsive. Teenage signs tend to be left closer to home, where others might see them. I wouldn’t rely on the kids these days for explanation of Selva Pascuala (no offense). I hardly think the mural can be understood well in terms of graffiti or prehistoric doodling, however conceived. True, such colorful ideas can cast a certain spell, in their delightfully Trumanesque, tire-kicking “prove it” defiance (I have a soft spot for that stuff, I admit). But they’re not “data driven.” And they generally lack explanatory power, as I find, by their implicit – and may I say dubious – analogy, between prehistory, and social life as we know it.

Contrary views have a role of course. They’re ideal sources for clues to possible flaws in rival theories. So we have more to gain than lose by granting them every consideration. But a fatal flaw they may share is a tendency to over-generalize from minimal evidence. In key ways, Selva Pascuala may tell us little about Australian rock art, for example. But the goal of our study wasn’t to prove anything, nor grand theorizing; only to find out about something if we can – whether it proves to be what we think or not.

Is “rational” your own label for the people who proceed purely from argument and not from evidence? Or is it in general circulation and therefore difficult to change? It seems to me that “rational” confers more status on such an approach than it’s worth: it’s more of a rhetoric-and-logic approach, but logic can still be irrational when it has no rational/evidential foundation. So I would recommend “rhetorical/logical” as a more appropriate label for this approach, or – if you want to be insulting, which of course we shouldn’t be – Aristotelian.

You say it well – what have you, been to college? My label along those lines would be “rationalist” actually. I think you and I both use ‘rational’ the same, for reason, clear thinking, in affirmation. This goes to a fine line between rational, and rationalism – i.e., intellectual justification, etc. Its Freud’s concept of rationalization applied collectively, to map ideological contours of society, contemporary non-material culture pattern. I find two major faces of a loose, diffuse rationalist movement (Jacques Vallee calls it). One is “rhetoric and logic” gone wild, which you specifically note; seems names get dropped a bit in that big tent (like Foucault). Juan Ruiz quips, our ‘post-structuralist’ archeologues would breezily reject relativity and quantum physics, with no interest in the phenomena they account for – and no offer of any better theory – simply because at present physicists don’t know how they integrate; and thus can’t explain one in terms of the other; as a certain brand of logic demands apparently.

Tracing its outline, I find rationalism has this other side, drawing mainly from scientific knowledge and perspective, not philosophy; some call it scientific materialism or scientism. Rationalism seems to primarily reflect a kind of psycho-culturally driven opposition to irrationalism in various forms (mostly either “old time/age” or “new”). The common ground seems to be a familiar metaphysical premise, that there’s an explanation for everything – scientific or logical (our choice) – and no baby, only dirty bathwater in any other perspective (“black tide of the occult,” Freud’s phrase). Some funambulating to do, I find, between ‘rational’ and ‘rationalistic’ – so I appreciate the focus on that fine line. Nice agility too – you’re a sport; dodging quicksand at the cutting edge of multi-disciplinary research and inquiry, where the devil’s hunter stalks rare game.

Congratulations on your well-deserved cover appearance in/on Economic Botany!

Thanks Leon, a humbling tribute; I’m obliged. The darkness of these caves seems a fit metaphor; I appreciate your help trying to light a candle. We’re a long way from figuring everything out, but hopefully it’s another step in the right direction.

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