Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Texas Mountain Laurel

The cave’s protruding edge allowed only starlight from the east to illuminate his painted face. Dyes of red and yellow masked his cheeks with singular zig-zag streaks of charcoal carefully drawn on both sides of his nose. He sat now without moving on the buffalo hide staring into the mesquite fire. The residue of pulverized mescal beans was smeared around his lips and hands as water flowed below him between the steep canyon banks of the river.

The Texas Mountain Laurel tree, also known as Mescal Bean and scientifically as Sophora secundiflora is indigenous to the Trans-Pecos. Its beans may have been used as ceremonial sacrament by paleo Indians for thousands of years.

The Mescal Bean is an evergreen shrub with waxy leaves that prefers limestone soil. Like many plants growing in limestone, they are slow growing but can reach heights of 20 feet. Lavender flowers are produced in spring and have a grape aroma. The beans are mature when they reach a red-lacquer and come in kiwi-colored fuzzy pods.

Archeologists from the University of Texas excavated a site near Langtry in the 1960’s.Bones from a now extinct species of Bison, spear points known as Folsom projectiles and residues of Texas Mountain Laurel beans were found. Using radio metric carbon dating, the scientists estimate these items were in use 12,000 years ago by some of North America’s earliest humans.

The recovery of Sophora secundiflora, a nitrogen fixing legume, in the context of these items along with rock paintings suggest the beans were used as a phyto-chemical religious enhancer. Secondary compounds found in the beans include cytistine, an alkaloid related to nicotine and known to cause visions, convulsive fits as well as respiratory failure.

Ceremonial use of the mescal bean by these early American aborigines seems to have come to an end about 1000 AD which may coincide with the transition of the people from hunter-gather to farmers or may suggest a replacement plant was found.