In the heart of the African Sahara lies a vast labyrinth of stones upon the plateau known as Tassili n’Ajjer…
Although the inhabitants of this stone forest no longer exist, evidence of their culture is painted all across the landscape.. Henri Lhote, the man responsible for cataloguing over 800 of the rock paintings here, described Tassili n’Ajjer as “the greatest museum of prehistoric art in the whole world” (Lhote 12). Him and his team are responsible for introducing the world to this great museum, though more recently, interpretations of the art have influenced a new public interest in Tassili n’Ajjer.
In his book, Food of the Gods, Terence McKenna analyzes some of the Tassili n’Ajjer rock paintings. He asserts that the paintings of Tassili n’Ajjer represent the earliest known depictions of domesticated cattle, as well as depictions of shamans with mushrooms. His hypothesis is that Tassili n’Ajjer is an area where Neolithic Saharan hunter-gatherers developed the domestication of cattle and that this pastoralist relationship inevitably led to the discovery of the dung-loving psychedelic mushrooms that then began growing in the area as a result. This interaction between Neolithic peoples and psychoactive mushrooms influenced the growing complexity of religious beliefs, as illustrated by some Tassili paintings, according to McKenna. (McKenna 70)
The psychedelics researcher Giorgio Samorini, put forth a similar yet separate hypothesis that artwork at Tassili n’Ajjer “could indeed reflect the most ancient human culture as yet documented in which the ritual use of hallucinogenic mushrooms is explicitly represented” (Samorini 69). This idea that Tassili n’Ajjer artwork may be a result of psychedelic substances originated in 1980, from Umberto Sansoni, and evolves through modern time (Le Quellec 137).
The rock paintings do demonstrate a progression from hunter-gatherer societies to ones focused on pastoralism. Very skillfully painted cattle show that these domesticated animals were a vital part of the cultures of the artists; one painting shows a herd of no less than sixty-five depicted alongside their herdsmen (Lhote 199-200). Compared to other painting styles that did not depict cattle, these cattle paintings are thought to be more recent, as many of them are superposed upon older paintings (Lhote 61). Evidence for the usage of psychoactive mushrooms, however, is more difficult to confirm.
Yet, according to McKenna, as well as Samorini, the evidence is shown by certain paintings of people with mushroom shaped objects decorating their bodies. The figure of a bee-faced person with geometric markings was documented by both Lhote and an individual named Jean-Dominique Lajoux, who was part of Lhote’s team in Tassili. When observed by Lhote, he described the bee-faced figure as having, “plants (flowers?) which issue from the arms and thighs” (Lhote 223). According to McKenna and Samorini, these “flowers” actually represent mushroom fruits. The depiction of the bee-faced “shaman” differs between Lhote’s illustrations and photographs taken by Jean-Dominique Lajoux and it is shown that the two shamans are not the same painting and must have happened in two separate locations in Tassili n’Ajjer.
In Lajoux’s, The Rock Paintings of the Tassili, a much larger number of mushrooms cover the shaman’s body and fruits are also grasped in the hands (Le Quellec 139). Lhote’s illustration only shows four main mushroom shapes sprouting from the limbs of the shaman, and no hands or feet (Lhote 88). Lhote’s shaman is placed on top of a white and unfinished figure and adjacent to another white figure of a woman, while Lajoux’s photograph has a painted handprint sitting behind the shaman’s shoulder. Lajoux’s photographs show another interesting scene; a group of figures with mushroom shaped heads dancing or running among curious geometric patterns and each holding mushroom shaped objects, with a clear fungiform object sprouting from the ground (Le Quellec 139). This pictorial evidence inspired and supported McKenna’s and Samorini’s hypotheses that psychoactive mushrooms directly influenced the ancient cultures of the Sahara.
An important idea to consider, one assertively put forth by Jean-Loïc Le Quellec in his writing “Shamans and Martians: The Same Struggle!”, is that the interpretation of prehistoric rock art is largely subjective. He explains how, without concrete evidence, hermeneutics “let their unbridled imaginations take over” (Le Quellec 135). As an example, the same paintings that certainly represented mushrooms for McKenna and Samorini are interpreted as a species of convolvulaceae (morning-glories) by another researcher, Ferdinando Fagnola (Le Quellec 138). Alternatively, Erich von Däniken uses Tassili n’Ajjer artwork to support his theory concerning ancient extraterrestrials, while Le Quellec himself safely attributes it to depictions of native mythology.
In conclusion, no concrete determination can be made about the existence of psychoactive mushrooms in the Sahara without further archaeological evidence. Artifacts can be interpreted in a multitude of ways and researchers can have preconceptions and bias in their research. It may be impossible to definitively prove the existence of psychoactive mushrooms at Tassili n’Ajjer without a preserved specimen; and although it may seem obvious that psychoactive mushrooms have profound and mind-altering capabilities, it would be very difficult to demonstrate how these mushrooms may have influenced the religions and beliefs of native populations. Perhaps new evidence will be unearthed in our future.
Le Quellec, Jean-Loïc. “Shamans and Martians: The Same Struggle!” The Concept of Shamanism: Uses and Abuses 2001: 135-159. [https://www.academia.edu/3577737/Shamans_and_Martians_the_same_struggle]
Lhote, Henri. The Search for the Tassili Frescoes. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc.,
McKenna, Terence. Food of the Gods. New York: Bantam Books, 1992. Print.
Samorini, Giorgio. “The Oldest Representations of Hallucinogenic Mushrooms in the World (Sahara Desert, 9000-7000 B.P.” Integration, no. 2 & 3: 69-78. 1992. [http://www.samorini.it/doc1/sam/sam-1992-sahara.pdf]