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Visions of ancient pots

The simple patterns on a pre-Columbian clay pot may well be more than a pretty design. They could be the stuff of visions, demons and hallucinogenic drugs, and a window on ancient cultures and religions. They could even be new evidence supporting current theories about the workings of the human brain.
These were some of the intriguing notions set forth in a talk innocently titled "The Iconography of Painted Archeological Ceramics from the Colombian Northern Andes," presented by Colombian Archeologist Felipe Cárdenas-Arroyo at the IDB's Washington, D.C., headquarters last July.

A specialist in mummification and the analysis of human bone, Cárdenas-Arroyo has led field expeditions throughout Colombia and Ecuador. He gave his talk at the conclusion of a four-year fellowship, financed in part by the IDB, at the Center for Advanced Studies of Visual Arts at Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery of Art.

Analyses of objects and human remains found in tombs--some of them buried at the end of 25-meter-long shafts--document the pervasive use of drugs in pre-Columbian societies. The evidence includes traces of cocaine and nicotine in the human remains and the abundance of what we today would call drug paraphernalia, such as snuffing spoons.

Cárdenas-Arroyo described how the ritual use of hallucinogens by shamans and priests was central to religious and medical practices, as well as to the preservation of power structures and the formation of political alliances. But early Spanish chroniclers, and particularly Catholic priests, found these practices frightening: the vomiting, excessive salivation and frantic behavior of the users looked to them like the European practice of witchcraft, which is also known to have a strong hallucinogenic element.

Cárdenas-Arroyo observed that the Spaniards view of drug use was similar to present-day attitudes. "In ancient times," he said "psychotropic substances were a powerful element of social unity and a reason for social gathering. But today they are one of the main sources of social disruption."

While the Spanish succeeded in stamping out the use of hallucinogens in the highlands, it remains widespread today among Amazonian groups.

Images across the ages. Perhaps the most intriguing evidence of pre-Columbian drug use has emerged through comparisons of images produced by the use of hallucinogens and the designs on ancient pottery.

In the first stage of hallucination--which can be brought on by deep states of meditation, extreme heat, fever or starvation as well as by drugs--the subject experiences light patterns known as phosphenes. In the 1930s, a German scientist named Max Knoll carried out an extensive investigation of phosphenes induced through electric shocks. He reported that his subjects described a series of light patterns that took the form of concentric circles, semiconcentric circles, spirals, stars, diamonds, dots and different types of lines ending in a characteristic curvature.

Then, 40 years later, Austrian-born ethnologist G. Riechel-Dolmatoff carried out an in-depth study of hallucinogenic plants used among Tukano Indians in the Colombian rain forest. He found that the images produced by drug-induced visions were extremely similar to decorative pattens on ceramics, walls of their ceremonial houses, bark paintings, basketry designs and other objects.

"But what turned out to be truly amazing," said Cárdenas-Arroyo, "was that many of the patterns made by the Tukanos were nearly identical to the phosphene patterns described 40 years earlier by Knoll." Moreover, he showed how phosphene-inspired patterns used in contemporary indigenous cultures are very similar to designs on ancient pottery (see photos).

"It is very intriguing to think about possible universal patterns of design produced by neurological and chemical phenomena in humans," he said.

This observation supports a growing body of evidence that human behavior, including artistic expression, is molded by man's biological nature to a far greater extent than has been generally believed. For example, Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, the foremost proponent of this widely discussed view, maintains that human evolution has strongly influenced how the human brain processes information and makes aesthetic judgements.

To Cárdenas-Arroyo, archeology is more than a study of the past; it's also a way of discovering links among cultures, both past and present. "I believe that many of these design patterns were like an unspoken language that held symbolic meaning through their iconography, which transcended linguistic and cultural barriers," he said. "Archeologists should make a greater effort to decode the symbolism beyond the art."

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