Deer Mushroom Ecology in Mexico

As was noted in another chapter, Stropharia cubensis, reportedly the strongest hallucinogenically of all the psychoactive species found in Mexico, is a dung fungus; it is typically found growing on manure in open meadows. Like other mushrooms, Stropharia reproduces by releasing countless microscopic spores from its gills into the wind, which deposits them in the surrounding grassland.* Like those of other coprophyllic species, the spores of S. cubensis do not germinate directly when they reach a suitable environment but require passage through the digestive system of grazing animals; in other words, they are ingested with the forage, being subsequently deposited as the animal evacuates. Not all herbivorous animals are capable of playing this essential symbiotic role, however; rather, it appears that to propagate, Stropharia requires the complex digestive system of ruminants. And indeed, the mushroom is today typically found on cow dung.

This curious circumstance has long worried those who, like Wasson, have studied Mexican mushroom cults in depth and been impressed with the important role Stropharia plays in these cults. The Mazatecs of Oaxaca, and perhaps some of the Maya of Chiapas and other Mesoamerican peoples to whom Stropharia is sacred, harvest the mushrooms in the rainy season in grassy meadows where cattle have been browsing. But cattle were unknown in the Americas before the coming of the Europeans. So the question naturally arises, in light of its apparent dependence on domestic ruminants, is Stropharia also a foreign import into Mexico? Or is there some indigenous species of animal that could have played the same essential role in pre-Hispanic times?

The answer is yes. And the animal is the deer. As a ruminant it is in fact the only species that could have served as Stropharia's host in Mexico and—assuming that the multichambered stomachs of ruminants are indeed the crucial factor—assured its survival as a species. In light of such an essential and easily observable relationship between deer and their preferred sacred psychoactive mushroom, the strict prohibition by the sixteenth-century Mazatecs of Oaxaca against the killing of deer in their country, and indeed their very name, which means "people of the deer," take on new significance.

* I am indebted to John Haines, mycologist for the New York State Museum in Albany, for clarifying the ecology of Stropharia cubensis.

To return to the question of Paleolithic or Mesolithic survivals, the discovery, by early migrants into Mexico, of a functional deer-mushroom relationship could, conceivably, have served to reinforce whatever ancient Asian traditions might then still have remained alive concerning the deer as source of supernatural power, and especially the visionary gifts of shamans. Thus, to borrow Albert Hofmann's imagery, another research series, culture-historical and ecological rather than strictly pharmacological, might be said to close like a magic circle.

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