Prehistoric peyote use : Alkaloid analysis and radiocarbon dating of archaeological specimens of Lophophora from Texas, Hesham R. El-Seedi et al., 2005,

Prehistoric peyote use : Alkaloid analysis and radiocarbon dating of archaeological specimens of Lophophora from Texas

Hesham R. El-Seedi, Peter A.G.M. De Smet, Olof Beck,
G¨oran Possnert, Jan G. Bruhn

Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 2005, 101, 238–242




Two archaeological specimens of peyote buttons, i.e. dried tops of the cactus Lophophora williamsii (Lem.) Coulter, from the collection of theWitte Museum in San Antonio, was subjected to radiocarbon dating and alkaloid analysis. The samples were presumably found in Shumla Cave No. 5 on the Rio Grande, Texas. Radiocarbon dating shows that the calibrated 14C age of the weighted mean of the two individual dated samples corresponds to the calendric time interval 3780–3660 BC (one sigma significance). Alkaloid extraction yielded approximately 2% of alkaloids. Analysis with thin-layer chromatography (TLC) and gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS) led to the identification
of mescaline in both samples. No other peyote alkaloids could be identified. The two peyote samples appear to be the oldest plant drug ever to yield a major bioactive compound upon chemical analysis. The identification of mescaline strengthens the evidence that native North Americans recognized the psychotropic properties of peyote as long as 5700 years ago.

Keywords : Lophophora williamsii; Peyote; Mescal buttons; Mescaline


1. Introduction

A chemical compound once formed would persist forever, if no alteration took place in the surrounding conditions.”

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825–1895) English Biologist/ Evolutionists. (cited by Asimov and Schulman, 1988).

The origins of drug use will probably never be fully understood, but some artefacts have survived, such as archaeological samples of drugs, their containers and related paraphernalia. One of the most fascinating, although very minor, approaches for drug research lies in the analysis and interpretation of such remains. Sometimes this field of science has been referred to as archeobotany or archaeoethnobotany (Schultes and von Reis, 1995).

The collections of many ethnographical museums comprise paraphernalia for ritual drug taking, and sometimes the drug itself or its vegetal source is also present. In such cases, botanical examination still may reveal the identity of the drug source, especially if it can be backed up by the results of chemical analysis (De Smet, 1995).

Archaeological investigations in Northeast Mexico and Trans-Pecos Texas have demonstrated that the knowledge of psychotropic drugs in this region goes back to ca. 8500 BCE (De Smet and Bruhn, 2003). The aboriginal inhabitants of this region may have used both the so called “red” or “mescal bean”, from Sophora secundiflora (Ort.) Lagasca ex De Candolle and “mescal buttons”, dried slices of the peyote cactus, Lophophora williamsii (Lem.) Coulter (Adovasio and Fry, 1976; Boyd and Dering, 1996). Unlike peyote, the mescal bean has been used extensively for ornamental purposes (Merrill, 1977), so we cannot know for sure that it has been used for psychoactive effects.

Previously, from one of the archaeological sites in Coahuila, Mexico, a number of “mescal buttons” were retrieved and Carbon-14 dated to 810–1070 CE. Alkaloid analysis revealed the presence of mescaline and four related tetrahydroisoquinoline alkaloids, anhalonidine, pellotine, anhalonine and lophophorine. Compared to freshly prepared “mescal buttons” there was a considerably lower alkaloid content (2.25% compared to ca. 8% in a recent sample) (Bruhn et al., 1978).

Some years ago, one of the authors (De Smet) came across two peyote “buttons” in the exhibition of the Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas. Although the museum documentation is not very specific, the most likely origin of these “buttons” is one of the Shumla caves, in the lower Pecos region, or another archaeological rock shelter in Southwestern Texas (Boyd and Dering, 1996; Martin, 1937). Previously, these plant remains have been subjected to Carbon-14 dating and their age has been reported as “7000 years”. However, all the information we have on that dating is from a book review, where this bare date is given as a personal communication to the reviewer (Furst, 1989).

With the kind help of the museum curators, two samples for phytochemical analysis and renewed Carbon-14 dating were prepared from the buttons in the collection. We here present the full results of these analyses. A preliminary communication of the results has appeared in The Lancet (Bruhn et al., 2002). In this paper, the methods are described in full detail.