By Gayle Keck

The present is catching up to the past. For millennia, Native Americans have entered altered states of consciousness for social, ceremonial, recreational, and medicinal reasons. Now, in modern times, substances that induce altered states are gaining legitimacy for many uses, including treating PTSD and depression. This new acceptance has sent a flood of funds to universities and start-up companies. It has also sparked new interest among archaeologists.
blind wolf pipe
The Blind Wolf pipe (AD 1-400) was discovered in north-central Tennessee in 1940. The steatite tube evokes the image of a resting and attentive wolf. The smoker would have invoked the wolf’s powerful spiritual presence during altered states of consciousness to see into the figure, to heal the injured or sick, and to supplicate the wolf as a guardian spirit. | Credit: David H. Dye.
David Robinson, an archaeologist at the University of Central Lancashire, emphasizes an important distinction between modern hallucinogen use and Indigenous use, however. “We call it ‘entering into a hallucinogenic state,’” he explained. “They would call it making the world that is typically invisible become visible, enabling them to encounter a supernatural world. We consider that hallucinations and dreams are not real. To them, it is just a different reality—like looking through a microscope and seeing a different world.”
polychrome smoker effigy
This Ramos Polychrome smoker effigy which shows a colorfully decorated shaman smoking hallucinogenic tobacco. | Credit Courtesy Centennial Museum, UTEP
Depending on the psychoactive agent, humans could “experience visual and auditory hallucinations, the feeling of flight or swimming, and extreme emotional experiences including fear and perhaps the sense of dying,” according to Christine VanPool, an archaeologist at the University of Missouri. They can see geometric images, including “dots, grids, lattices, honeycombs, checkerboards, arcs, cobwebs, tunnels, stars, and spirals.”
macaw effigy
A macaw effigy that was crafted to denote spiraling, which is a common sensation in the early stages of altered states of consciousness. | Credit Courtesy Centennial Museum, UTEP
This tubular pipe from an unknown Columbia River site in the Pacific Northwest tested positive for nicotine. | Credit Bob Hubner / WSU Photo Services
This is an article excerpt from the Summer 2022 edition of American Archaeology Magazine.  Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription!


| The Archaeological Conservancy 2022


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