What Is Peyote? 

Explore the rich cultural history and traditional use of peyote, a sacred psychedelic cactus that has been utilized by Indigenous cultures for millennia.

Overview: Peyote is a small, spineless cactus native to Mexico and the Southwestern US that contains the psychedelic alkaloid mescaline. It has been used for ceremonial and medicinal purposes by American-Indian and indigenous populations for thousands of years. Despite colonization and challenges, indigenous tribes have preserved their ritual use of peyote, and it is still used in ceremonies today. However, there are concerns about its sustainability due to slow growth and declining abundance, and conservation efforts are needed to protect this important plant.

What is Peyote?

Peyote (Lophophora Williamsii) is a rounded, spineless cactus native to Northern Mexico and the Southwestern US that contains the psychedelic alkaloid mescaline (3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine. It has been used for a variety of purposes by American-Indian and pre-Columbian indigenous populations for millennia. 

Peyote is a small species of cactus, with waxy green skin adorned with yellow-white tufts, and, occasionally, pink flowers on top. It is globular in shape and grows close to the ground, often in clumps. The cactus top (called a “crown” or “button”) is traditionally cut from the root of the peyote plant, dried, and consumed for ceremonial use.

The peyote cactus primarily grows in Mexico  on the limestone soils of the Chihuahuan Desert, the Sierra Madre Occidental, and in the states of Coahuila, Nuevo León, Nayarit, Tamaulipas, and San Luis Potosí. It can also be found in southwest Texas.

Artistic rendition of the peyote cactus button.

Earliest Records of Peyote Use

Archaeological evidence of peyote consumption dates back 5,700 years to prehistoric times, with specimens and shamanic artifacts discovered in Cuatro Ciénagas, Coahuila, Mexico, and in the Shumla Cave in Texas.

However, the earliest written records of peyote use can be traced to a Franciscan friar and missionary priest named Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, who arrived in Mexico (then known as "New Spain") in 1529. In his 'Historia General de las cosas de Nueva España', Sahagún provides a valuable account of the ancestral secrets of the Chichimeca tribe of modern-day Bajio. Sahagún describes:

“Those who eat or drink peyote see visions either frightful or laughable … it sustains them (the Chichimeca) and gives them the courage to fight and not feel fear nor hunger nor thirst. And they say that it protects them from all danger."

The origins of peyote use among indigenous populations are subject to debate, with differing opinions among scholars. While the Chichimeca are often credited as the first American-Indians to discover the visionary and medicinal properties of peyote, some researchers believe that the Tarahumara (Rarámuri) of the Sierra Tarahumara may have been the first to experience its visionary qualities.

It is possible that multiple tribes independently discovered the psychedelic cactus around the same time. The exact history and timeline of peyote's use among different indigenous communities is a topic of ongoing study and discussion among researchers.

According to Dr. Francisco Hernández, a physician sent to Mexico in the mid-16th century by King Phillip II to gather information on indigenous medicine, the name peyote is derived from the Aztec language of Nahuatl. Specifically, peyote comes from the term “peyotl” which can be translated to “silk cocoon” or caterpillar cocoon." 

Dr. Hernández also provides the first a description of peyote’s physical characteristics, uses, and effects. According to Dr. Hernández's ethnobotanical accounts, the cactus was described as having a “sweetish taste” and moderate heat. It was believed to have “wonderful properties,” including the ability to “foresee and predict things” for those who consumed it.

Indigenous Resilience: The Continued Practice of Peyote Ceremonies Despite Colonization

Despite facing significant challenges such as colonization, forced displacement, persecution, and prohibition of sacred peyote ceremonies by conquistadors, indigenous tribes have persevered in their ritual consumption of peyote.

The oppression of indigenous societies unintentionally led to the strengthening of ties between previously hostile tribes. In an effort to conserve their sacred practice and cope with the condemnation of their culture, former enemy populations began cooperating and eventually settled together in the Chihuahuan Desert, where peyote naturally grows.

By 1885, despite facing opposition from missionary and local governmental groups, American-Indians organized their “peyote cult” into a legally recognized religious group known as the Native American Church. The Native American Church was formally registered in 1918 and currently has over a quarter of a million members.

Peyote is still used in indigenous ceremonies today, though there is concern surrounding its sustainability due to its extremely slow growth cycle (10-30 years), the diminishing size of buttons, and declining abundance. It is crucial to implement restoration and conservation programs to safeguard the survival of this important plant.

The cultural significance of peyote among many American-Indian populations cannot be overstated. For these communities, peyote holds profound spiritual and traditional significance.

Psychoactive Alkaloids in Peyote: Understanding Mescaline and its Effects

Peyote contains over 60 psychoactive alkaloids of the phenethylamine family, of which the classic psychedelic mescaline is most prominent and significant. 

Mescaline is also responsible for the profound mind-altering effects of two other well-known psychedelic cacti; San Pedro (Echinopsis pachanoi) and Peruvian Torch (Trichocereus peruvianus), both of which are native to the Andes. Of all three, peyote contains the highest quantity of mescaline, typically ranging from 3% to 6% when dry. 

Mescaline was first isolated from peyote and identified in 1897 by Arthur Heffter, the German chemist after whom the Heffter Research Institute is named. Then, in 1919, an Austrian chemist named Ernst Späth who was interested in plant extracts became the first person to synthesize mescaline.

During the 1950s and 1960s, LSD emerged as a highly popular psychedelic due to its potency, shorter duration of action, and lower cost compared to mescaline. As a result, mescaline gradually lost its popularity and faded into obscurity. Nowadays, obtaining white crystalline mescaline, which is typically mixed with water or prepared into capsules for ingestion, reportedly poses challenges due to its limited availability.

The standard dose of peyote is 4-12 buttons. Dosages of peyote are as follows:

  • Light dose: 50-100g fresh or 10-20g dry (three to six mid-sized buttons)
  • Moderate dose: 150g fresh or 30g dry (six to twelve buttons)
  • Strong dose: 200g fresh or 40g dry (eight to sixteen buttons)
  • Heavy dose: > 200g fresh or 40g dry 

Dosages of crystalline mescaline are as follows:

  • Light dose: 50-200mg 
  • Moderate dose: 200-400mg
  • Strong dose: 400-800mg 
  • Heavy dose: > 800mg 

The Effects of Peyote

As with all psychedelics, each psychedelic experience induced by peyote is unique. The nature of the experience is influenced by factors such as one's mindset and intentions and the physical environment in which the drug is consumed, referred to as “set and setting.” 

Although peyote journeys may differ in content and characteristics, there are some commonalities across trips that can provide journeyers with a general sense of what to expect.

The subjective effects of peyote typically set in 30-60 minutes after consumption. The first phase of the experience is often characterized by physical discomfort, which may include feelings of fullness, nausea, increased heart rate, excessive sweating, and trembling. Other physical effects may include increased blood pressure and pupil dilation (mydriasis).

After approximately 2 hours, the uncomfortable come-up period typically dissolves into a pleasant peak period lasting 4-6 hours where users may experience changes in perception, thinking, emotion, and their sense of self.

Commonly reported effects of peyote include:

  • Vivid visuals (color enhancement, geometric patterns, “melting”/“breathing” surfaces)
  • Appreciation of nature
  • Emotional sensitivity 
  • Anxiety 
  • Euphoria
  • Empathy
  • Tendency towards introspection
  • Inner peace
  • Spiritual insights
  • Transcendence of time and space
  • Ego dissolution
  • A sensation of weightlessness or “oceanic boundlessness”
  • Sense of oneness with the universe 

Difficult peyote experiences, commonly referred to as a “bad trip,” are more likely to occur among individuals who do not respect the importance of set and setting or fail to adhere to safety guidelines. When these factors are not carefully considered and managed, it can increase the likelihood of a challenging or distressing experience during a peyote journey.

It is important to approach the use of peyote or any other psychedelic substance with caution, respect, and mindfulness to minimize the risk of a "bad trip" and ensure a safe and beneficial experience.

Peyote has a rich history of traditional use among indigenous communities, and its cultural significance cannot be overstated. Understanding its psychoactive alkaloids, particularly mescaline, can provide insights into its effects. Conservation efforts are crucial to ensure the survival of this important plant for future generations.

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