Somewhere in the limestone sands of the Chihuahuan Desert in northern Mexico, among the sage and the toads, grows a most interesting little cactus. Its appearances, for one, are not that of your “ideal” cactus. It’s short, it’s wrinkly, it’s strangely rounded and could easily be called spineless, although it is not without personality. This comes in the form of its rich and diverse chemical profile consisting of numerous alkaloids. This plant is called Lophophora williamsii, a member of the Cactus family (Cactaceae) better known as peyote (Coult 2011). This little cacti has been a source of both scientific inquiry and spiritual insight for many cactus cultures throughout human history. At the center of our species’ fascination with peyote is the alkaloid mescaline, a psychedelic compound that occurs in a small number of cacti and is illegal in many parts of the world. Peyote only grows in a small region of northern Mexico and the southern United States, yet due to the presence of mescaline this little spineless cactus has made a name for itself in multiple cultures. (Anderson 1996)
Mescaline: Chemistry and Ecology
There are over fifty alkaloids that have been isolated and elucidated from L. williamsii (Anderson 1996). The alkaloids have been separated into two classes, differentiated by their physiological action. The first are strychnine-like alkaloids which cause increased reflex-irritability; the second are morphine-like and cause sedative-soporific symptoms. Mescaline falls into the second category and belongs to the phenethylamine class of alkaloids. All of the alkaloids, including mescaline, are produced throughout the body of the cactus as byproducts and intermediates of natural bio-synthetic pathways. Aside from functioning in the life process of the cactus, these alkaloids also provided an indispensable defense against predation. Desert toads and small mammals who ingest these alkaloids experience paralysis and sometimes death. The more potent of the neurological agents are typically stored at the top most portion of the cactus, which is most readily exposed and most widely eaten. It is interesting to reflect upon the fact that these alkaloids developed in the cactus family as defensive compounds long before our ape ancestors first found footing on this continent (Anderson 2017). Why does a chemical profile, which immobilizes or kills most vertebrates, cause such immense and cosmologically shifting reactions in the humans that ingest it (Sullivan 2002)?
The main alkaloid in peyote that effects human consciousness is mescaline. This chemical is considered a human psychedelic. In short, psychedelics act in the human body like naturally occurring neurotransmitters, crossing the blood brain barrier and locking into receptors typically reserved for things like dopamine, serotonin, and adrenaline. Mescaline, in its effects on humans, is similar to LSD and psilocybin, found in ergot and certain species of mushrooms respectively (Anderson 1996). Mescaline lacks the indole ring that is present in most other psychedelic substances and constitutes a phenethylamine. This difference in chemical structure has led scientist to infer an independent development of this chemical from other psychedelic alkaloids found in other flowering plants and fungi (Anderson 2017). In other words, substances that have this type of physiological effect on humans are found throughout plant and fungal kingdoms, and on many occasions, arose independently of each other. For the most up to date information on research into psychedelic compounds visit the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
Peyote represents a long-lasting example of shamanic use of chemical substances found in plants to expand the consciousness, to heal, and to dictate the will of the cosmos. To give an idea of just how long humans have been using peyote consider this; recent retroactive dating and alkaloid analysis identified active amounts of mescaline in 5700 thousand year old peyote buttons (the cut and dried top of a peyote plant) discovered at an archaeological dig site in Texas (El-Seedi 2005). To the early cultures of North America, peyote represented a link between our world and the world of spirits and the divine (Barre 1975). This mentality is still maintained by the Huichol people of Mexico, a group that has been present in its current incantation for thousands of years. A central part of their culture is a yearly pilgrimage to the Chihuahuan Desert in northern Mexico where peyote grows (Barre 1975). This grueling 1000-mile round trip is taken on foot to pay respects to peyote, a plant that the Huichol people see as a link to the divine. One wonders how an alkaloid employed to deter herbivory could inspire such behavior in humans. The Huichol Center is a non-profit aimed at helping maintain the sovereignty and cultural history of the Huichol people.
In addition to practices among indigenous peoples of northern Mexico, there are widespread peyote based practices among the indigenous peoples of the United States of America. These practices were supposedly adopted through interactions between the tribes of the great plains and indigenous groups in the regions where peyote grows. Although mescaline is illegal in America today, the Native American Church of North America is still protected in their right to use peyote in ceremony. The church has a membership of over 250,000 people and stands as a testament to the power peyote has over people. One of many churches across the United States can be found here. (Anderson 1996)
The Western World has also had its fair share of exposure to peyote, starting with the Spanish colonization of South America. The Spanish brought back stories and eventually samplings of the peyote cactus. In 1888, a German scientist published papers dealing with the chemistry of peyote. It was then that mescaline was identified; and not long after made available for public purchase in the back of a catalog (Anderson 1996). For almost 50 years mescaline was used in psychiatric practices and researched for potential medicinal use. Its availability to the Western mind predated psilocybin and LSD by decades. In this right, mescaline acted as a catalyst, inspiring many people who went on to be involved in the Beat generation and the subsequent progressive movements of the following decades (Barre 1975).
The chemicals in peyote, namely mescaline, hold a power over people. We see it in the Huichol people as well as other groups, we see it in the ecologically minded global shift in consciousness that much of the western world underwent during the 1960’s and subsequent decades, and we see it in the continued and widespread use among both indigenous peoples and western psychonauts. The diversity of chemicals produced by plants is absolutely astounding. And the ways these chemicals are used to interact with the world around them is equally astounding. The differences in reaction to these chemicals is a bit of a mystery and lies in both parties’ tolerance for each other (Sullivan 2002). Lophophora williamsii did not develop in the presence of humans or even our ancestors. It is a thing of fact that we did eventually come into contact with these alkaloids, and strangely enough they did not kill or deter us but attracted us and made us look both inward and out for insight into our place in the cosmos (Anderson 2017).