What is Peyote? A comprehensive look at the psychedelic cactus used by indigenous Americans for millennia.
Peyote (Lophophora Williamsii) is a rounded, spineless cactus native to Northern Mexico and the Southwestern US containing the powerful psychedelic compound, mescaline. Peyote has been used for a variety of purposes by American-Indian and pre-Columbian indigenous populations for millennia.
Evidence of peyote consumption dates back 5,700 years to prehistoric times with specimens and shamanic artifacts having been identified in Cuatro Ciénagas, Coahuila, Mexico, and in the Shumla Cave in Texas.
Despite seemingly insurmountable vilification by colonizing conquistadors, which included forced displacement, persecution, and prohibition of sacred peyote ceremonies, ritual consumption of peyote among indigenous tribes has persisted.
The oppression of indigenous societies had the unintended side-effect of strengthening ties between hitherto hostile tribes. All struggling to cope with the condemnation of their culture, former enemy populations began cooperating for the conservation of their sacred practice, eventually settling in unison in the Chihuahuan Desert — where peyote happens to naturally grow.
By 1885, despite significant opposition from missionary and local governmental groups, American-Indians organized their “peyote cult” into a legally recognized religious group called the Native American Church. The Native American Church was formally registered in 1918, and today it boasts over a quarter of a million members.
Peyote is a species of small, spineless 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. Peyote contains over 60 psychoactive alkaloids of the phenethylamine family, of which mescaline is the most prominent and significant.
Dosages of peyote are as follows:
The standard dose of peyote is 4-12 buttons.
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.
The earliest written records concerning peyote use were those of a Franciscan friar and missionary priest named Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, who set sail for Mexico (which was then “New Spain”) in 1529. In his ‘Historia General de las cosas de Nueva Espana’ — 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 Chichimeca are often credited as the first American-Indians to discover the visionary and medicinal properties of Peyote, however this is subject to debate. Many scholars believe that the Tarahumara (Rarámuri), now residing in the high sierras and deep canyons of the Sierra Tarahumara, were the first to experience peyote’s wondrous qualities. It is quite probable that several tribes discovered the psychedelic cactus independently around the same time.
Thanks to Dr. Francisco Hernández, a physician sent to Mexico in the mid-16th century by King Phillip II to gather information on indigenous medicine, we know that 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."
Hernández was also the first to provide a description of peyote’s physical characteristics, uses, and effects. Of the cactus, Dr. Hernández reported in his ethnobotanical accounts that “It appears to be of a sweetish taste and moderately hot … Wonderful properties are attributed to this root … It causes those devouring it to be able to foresee and to predict things..."
Mescaline (3,4,5-trimethoxyphenethylamine) is a naturally occurring psychedelic alkaloid found in the peyote cactus. 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 is the parent compound of all the psychedelic phenethylamines — one of the major subclasses of psychedelic compounds — which includes the 2C family of drugs (e.g. 2C-B). Buttons at the root of peyote may be chewed to release mescaline or the plant can be brewed as a tea.
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.
Mescaline received considerable scientific and medical attention in the years after Heffter’s discovery, however, it wasn’t until 1954 that the hype surrounding the drug’s boundary-dissolving properties took off. That was the year British author Aldous Huxley delivered a meditative account of mescaline’s effects in his wildly popular 63-page essay, The Doors of Perception.
Huxley’s fascinating description of his mind-bending mescaline experience, in which he introduced readers to the concept of “Mind at Large,” popularized the use of the drug for religious, spiritual, creative, and medicinal purposes. Today, thanks in large part to Huxley, mescaline has the reputation of being the first classic psychedelic to capture Western minds.
As LSD gained widespread popularity in the 50s and 60s — a psychedelic that was much more potent, shorter-acting, and considerably cheaper — mescaline gradually faded into obscurity. White crystalline mescaline is typically mixed with water or prepared into capsules for ingestion, however, today, it is reportedly very difficult to source.
Dosages of crystalline mescaline are as follows:
As is the case with all psychedelics, each visionary experience induced is unique in its phenomenology. The quality of the experience, too, is fashioned by one’s mindset and the physical, social and cultural environment in which the drug is consumed.
Each journey with peyote will likely differ in both its content and characteristics, however, 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 an element of physical discomfort, which may include a feeling of fullness, nausea, increased heart rate, diaphoresis (excessive sweating), and trembling. Other physical effects include increased blood pressure and pupil dilation (mydriasis).
After 2 hours, the uncomfortable come-up period typically dissolves into a blissful peak lasting 4-6 hours. Commonly reported effects of a peyote peak include:
In total, the subjective effects of peyote typically last between 8 and 14 hours, however after effects, often referred to as an “afterglow,” may be felt for days or even weeks.
Difficult peyote experiences, aka a “bad trip,” are more common among those who fail to respect the importance of set and setting or adhere to safety guidelines.
The preservation of peyote use and subsequent growth of the Native American Church comprise an enchanting chapter in the history of visionary plants in the West. Historical and present-day use of peyote also offers up a stern challenge to the scientists who continue to study this fascinating cactus and its many psychoactive alkaloids.
It is essential to remember the storied historical use of peyote, from its origins as a sacrament in ceremonial use, to the displacement and persecution of indigenous populations that followed, not to mention the culture-shaping role of its main psychoactive component, mescaline, has played in the West.
Peyote is still used in indigenous ceremonies today, though there is considerable concern surrounding its sustainability due to its extremely slow growth cycle (10-30 years), the diminishing size of buttons, and ever-declining abundance.
For many American-Indian populations, life does not make sense without peyote. The study and cultivation of the peyote must be informed by indigenous communities — those most acquainted with its mystique — and it is essential that restoration and conservation programs are employed to ensure the plant's survival.
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