Archeological evidence shows that peyote has been used in North America for over 10,000 years. Plant remains have been found in human sites dating from 8,500 BC. The ancient Colima culture of 2,000 years ago has prolific art showing the use of peyote. Peyote came to European attention when Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztec civilization of central Mexico in 1559. His appointed archbishop, Juan de Zumarraga, searched throughout the empire for information about their civilization and burned thousands of documents, including a tremendous store of knowledge of plants and medicines.
The Franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun accompanied the conquistadors. Fortunately for historians, he was a better naturalist than missionary, and recognized the value of the information that was about to be lost. He worked tirelessly with Aztec physicians to record their medical practices and after decades of effort, produced the monumental Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva Espana (General History of Things of New Spain). In this work, he described a cactus used by the Chichimecas, “which they call peyotl, and those who drank it took it in place of wine.” He went on to write “it is like a food to the Chichimecas, which supports them and gives them courage to fight and they have neither fear, nor thirst, nor hunger, and they say that it protects them from every danger.
The new conquerors were not pleased to learn of a plant, which gave courage and removed fear and hunger. In 1571, a harsh repression began of all traditional religious practices, and in 1620, the use of peyote was declared to be the work of the devil. In the eyes of the government, peyote was as evil as murder and cannibalism and its use severely punished, sometimes by death.
Although peyote was repressed, it continued to be used secretly by healers and shamans, and more openly by remote tribes including the Yaqui, Cora and Tepecano. Two tribes in particular, the Huichole and the Tarahumara have carried the peyote tradition up to the present as a central, dominant feature of their culture.
The Huichole tribe now consists of about 25,000 people who live in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain region of northwestern Mexico. Most of their sacred practices revolve around the use of peyote, which they hold as the physical manifestation of God. Peyote, they believe, “will give one heart” and greatly increases Kupuri, the energy force that creates life. Because the cactus does not grow in their territory, Huichole’s travel hundreds of miles to the peyote fields each year in a ritualistic journey that involves prayer, abstinence, and celebration. Their annual pilgrimage is made at the end of the rainy season, in October or November. A Huichole shaman, the Mara’akame, who is in contact with Tatewari, the grandfather-fire, also known as Hikuri, the Peyote-God, leads the pilgrimage. For the Huichole, peyote is much more than an intoxicant; it is a central feature of their lives. They pray to it, tell stories and dance to it, and use it for all types of illnesses, even childbirth, and rub the juices of fresh peyote into wounds to prevent infection and promote healing.
The Tarahumara historically lived north of the Huichole in the Sierra Madre Occidental, but now many of the 50,000 members of the tribe have migrated to the hills and plains southwest of the city of Chihuahua. Tarahumaras are famous as great distance runners, delighting in 20 to 40 mile races over rugged mountain trails. Their races are not only for sport but also have religious meaning. Athletes carry only a little leather pouch containing peyote, which they use for endurance and to keep focused on the meditative spirit of the run. While the outward ritual of their peyote use is different from the Huichole, they share the belief that peyote is the flesh of God.