Texas Peyote Culture
Cactus and Succulent Journal, 2018, 90, (1), 29-38
Peyote (Lophophora williamsii (Lem.) Coult.) has deep roots in Texas, or a deep taproot to be precise. While Texas is currently home to a federally regulated peyote trade, where members of the Native American Church (NAC) can legally purchase peyote for use in religious ceremonies, archaeological sites in Texas, and neighboring Coahuila, also mark the earliest known ceremonial associations between humans and peyote. It is believed that the peyote rituals of the Huichol, Nahua, Tarahumara, Cora, Tepehuan, and more recently the NAC, all trace their origins to the peyote gardens of Texas (Boyd
2016). Although ceremonial use of peyote is typically associated with the Native American tribes of the United States, or with the Huichol of Mexico, traditions native to Texas are currently being revived by descendants of the Mission Indians (many identifying as Coahuiltecans) living in and around San Antonio. In the following pages, I will endeavor to draw out the various connections between peyote and Texas, beginning with the archaeological evidence, then examining the history of the Coahuiltecan Indians and their influence on the development of the NAC, followed by an examination of the Texas peyote trade, its history and practices, as well as historical uses of peyote in folk remedies of the region.
Archaeological evidence suggests that peyote may have been used in human rituals for over five thousand years. In the 1930s, peyote buttons were recovered from the Shumla Caves in the Lower Pecos region of southwestern Texas, and were later estimated to date back to between 5,200 and 5,700 years ago (El-Seedi et al. 2005; Terry et al. 2006). Further investigations have demonstrated that these ancient peyote buttons were not peyote buttons at all, but rather a composite of different plants, including peyote, and apparently shaped to look like peyote buttons (Terry et al. 2006). The purpose of these “effigies” has not been identified, but their form and the location of their discovery in a cave, are both suggestive of a religious function (Fig. 1). Caves and rock shelters were also used as a canvas of sorts by pre-historic peoples, and pictographic evidence of ceremonial peyote use, dating back between 2,950 to 4,200 years, has been identified from caves in the same region (Boyd 1996; Boyd & Dering 1996).
Archaeologist Carolyn Boyd, who has studied the rock art of southwestern Texas for over two decades has put forth an argument that a pictograph, popularly known as the White Shaman Mural (Figs. 2–4), details the elements of an ancient peyote ceremony, and has drawn on compelling parallels between the images and symbolism of the rock art with modernday Huichol culture, as well as with historic Nahua
mythology (Boyd 2016). Notably, the Shumla caves are only a few miles from the White Shaman Mural.
At a third location, a mortuary site in Coahuila, Mexico, dried peyote buttons strung together like a necklace were discovered. These specimens have been estimated to date between 810 and 1070 AD (Bruhn et al. 1978; Terry et al. 2006). Each of these three sites is within the boundaries of peyote’s known growth range, and they mark the earliest known human associations with this plant. These findings suggest that the peyote cactus was first discovered and used by people in the northern part of its growth range, encompassing southern Texas and northern Coahuila.