Found at Last A Living Mushroom Cult in Mexico

He was to be proved right in the late 1930's. In 1936 "Papa" Weitlaner encountered magic mushrooms for the first time in the country of the Mazatecs in Oaxaca. He sent a specimen to Reko, who forwarded it to the Harvard Botanical Museum, where unfortunately it arrived too badly deteriorated to be identified. In 1938, Weitlaner, his daughter Irmgard, and her future husband Jean Basset Johnson, on a field trip to Huautia de Jimenez became the first outsiders permitted to attend—though not participate in—an all-night curing ritual in which mushrooms were eaten. Johnson, who lost his life in North Africa in 1944, described the experience at a meeting of the Sociedad Mexicana de Antropología in August 1938 and in a more extensive paper published by the Gothenburg Ethnographic al Museum (1939).

Mushroom use, he wrote, appeared to be widespread in Mazatec country; shamans, or curers, used them primarily for the purpose of divining the cause of an illness, and during the session it was the mushrooms, which were held in great reverence, that were believed to speak, not the curer. Johnson also confirmed that not just one but several kinds of intoxicating mushrooms were known to the Indians.

In August 1938, a month after the Weitlaner-Johnson experience at Huautia de Jimenez, Schultes and Reko received from Indian informants in the same village specimens of three different species they were told were revered by the people for their visionary properties. Schultes took careful notes of their morphology and in 1939 published the first scientific description. In 1956, the distinguished French mycologist Roger Heim, director of the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, identified one as Psilocybe caerulescens, another was defined by the Harvard mycologist Dr. David Under as Panaeolus campanulatus, subsequently redefined as P. sphinctrinus; and the third by Dr. Rolf Singer as Stropharia cubensis.

Schultes and Reko on their field trip in 1938 had also been able to extend the area of sacred mushroom use beyond the frontiers of Mazatec country to other Indian groups of southeastern Mexico. In the years since, more mushroom-using populations have been added to the list, including, as recently as 1970-1971, the Matlatzinca of San Francisco Oxtotilpan, a small town located about 25 miles southeast of Toluca in the state of Mexico, and possibly also the Choi and Lacandon in the Maya lowlands. The Matlatzinca, who belong to one of the oldest language families of Mexico, the Otomian, are the first inhabitants of central Mexico to have been identified with mushroom use since the sixteenth and seventeenth century, and the Choi and Lacandon are, as already noted, the very first Maya populations for whom sacred mushrooms have been reported in historic times. Altogether we now know of about fifteen different Indian groups, each with its own language, whose curers employ hallucinogenic mushrooms. There are likely to be still others, including lowland and perhaps even highland Maya-speakers, among whom the ancient practice will eventually be found to have survived.

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