The following article is exceerpted from The Psychedelic Journey of Marlene Dobkin de Rios, published by Inner Traditions.
My interest in archaeological monuments and earthworks in cultures in which plant psychedelics were used was heightened by my visits to a number of sites in Peru, particularly among the Nazca ruins, two hours south of Lima. In 1978, my family and I took a wonderful trip to see the famous Nazca lines, a series of geoglyphs in the Nazca Desert, a high arid plateau that stretches more than fifty miles from the town of Nazca. This led me to think about some of the somatic effects of the psychedelics and their influence on the massive earthworks of ancient peoples.
Out-of-body experiences, or the so-called aerial voyage of the shaman, may have influenced the building of New World massive earthworks. The power of the shaman was made known by the symbols in these earthworks, particularly the animal familiars and cosmological energies that a given shaman could control. Messages about the power of the shaman were made known to all members of the community and reassured individuals that their shaman or shamans were more powerful than those of other communities. This insured survivability in a harsh environment.
The Nazca culture of Peru flourished along the southern desert coast and dates from about 1000 ce. The Nazca are known for some of the finest textiles and ceramics in ancient America. The Nazca Lines, a vast network in the desert plains that has been recorded by scholars, consists of thousands of straight lines so huge that they can only be seen from the height of an airplane. Several hundred such earthworks exist, which were made by removing small stones that covered the desert from the paths. The stones were placed along the sides and form slightly elevated ridges.
This is an area of the world where no rain falls, so that preservation has been fairly continuous. The paths run continuously and never cross, completing the figure close to its beginning. A number of forms can be discerned, including flying birds, insects, felines, killer whales, fish, spiral forms that possibly are coiled snakes, and flying pelicans. Some of these figures are more than 1,700 meters long while others extend over two-and-a-half kilometers. There is no doubt that these are sacred objects. Moreover, all the motifs appearing in the earthworks also occur on the tapestries and ceramics of the region. These figures are always found closely associated with a large enclosure or wide road. Scholars have seen these drawings as a kind of monumental architecture where once important activities occurred. These analyses of the earthworks could only occur after 1944, when aerial photography was employed to map them.
The next step in this puzzle was to establish the presence and availability of plant hallucinogens in the region at this time. North of this area, connected by roads as long as 600 miles, a wide variety of hallucinogenic plants were available, including the San Pedro cactus. This plant was used by the Moche, a people contemporary with the Nazca. The coca plant, also known and chewed throughout Peru, was represented in coastal pottery, and as we have noted it can produce trancelike states in high dosages. Hallucinogenic snuff, from the DMT-containing Anadenanthera peregrina bush, is found south and east of the Nazca lines. One can assume that this was incorporated into the culture of the Nazca.
Once we have established that plant hallucinogens were available, we can turn to a commonly reported subjective effect of these plants: the out-of-body experience of the shaman. Such a subjective state can occur spontaneously — without any chemical intervention — and can also take place as part of the psychedelic experience. It has often been called the "depersonalization effect." It includes a wide array of distortions in body image and a schism between body and mind, or dissolution of boundaries between the self and the other, the world, or the universe. The person at times seems to observe objects of perception as if they were not coincident with his physical body. Changes in body images are very common with the ingestion of plant hallucinogens. At high doses bizarre feelings, such as a body melting into the background or floating in space, can register.
In some societies this out-of-body experience is highly valued, especially if the person seeks it through training and repeated efforts. Ranging on a continuum, the effects of an out-of-body experience include such phenomena as seeing one's physical body in objective space but experiencing a no-body-like container that encompasses the external locus of one's awareness. Perception can take on an otherworldly, mystical, paranormal nature.
The famous historian of religion Mircea Eliade has written that shamanistic religion almost always includes the aerial voyage and that shamans fly. This magical power is credited to sorcerers and medicine men. Eliade sees this as purely spiritual in character. To him, flight expresses intelligence, understanding of secret things, or metaphysical truths; magical flight expresses the soul's autonomy and ecstasy. The shaman transcends the human condition, by flying into the air in bird form.
The plant hallucinogens were most likely used to provoke shamanistic out-of-body experiences. Since the shaman is the psychopomp — the spiritual guardian –of his community, he is obliged to confront and combat his group's adversaries. A major part of his activity includes healing disease and neutralizing those misfortunes that have occurred to members of the community through the machinations of enemies. Shamans are able to transform themselves into powerful animal figures whom they send to do their bidding, to rectify evil or redress harm caused to their clients. The effigies of animals and birds found in the massive earthworks of the Americas represent these shamanic familiars. There is a mystical solidarity between humans and animals that is a dominant characteristic of the animistic early religions of these regions. Today we hear about interspecies communication, but that is hardly a new concept!
So the shaman, ingesting psychedelics with spirit familiars on call to serve him, has a subjective component that includes the sensation of flying. My point is quite simple: one need not fly in the air to really fly. Massive earthworks like the Nazca lines, difficult for the Westerner to conceptualize visually outside of an airplane voyage, can be more simply explained as the projection by the shaman of the animal from the heights of ecstasy through which he soars. The geometric forms in the earthworks can be linked to the geometric forms in the kaleidoscopic visionary patterns reported by plant-psychedelic users. These monumental earthworks may have been constructed to warn rival shamans of the powers controlled by the shamans in a given area, to reaffirm supernatural contact, and to maintain social solidarity.
The enormous expenditures of labor and cooperation needed to construct such earthworks, a process that may have extended over generations, reaffirm the bonds that linked people together. The symbolic forms of the image mounds consisted of elements of ritualized beliefs already present in the arts of the culture. These are emblems of power, constructed in the symbolic idiom of each culture, and they give us insight into the area where shamanistic religion and hallucinogenic use converge.
Marlene Dobkin de Rios, Ph.D., is a medical anthropologist, associate clinical professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the University of California, Irvine, and professor emerita of anthropology at California State University, Fullerton, where she taught cultural anthropology from 1969-2000. She is the author of seven books and several hundred professional articles.