An enigmatic psychoactive plant: the tenatsali of the Zuñis of New Mexico

In the traditional world, the effects of intoxicating plants are usually interpreted as doors for access to, and communication with, the supernatural world. Alongside the more well-known species that have been subjected to in-depth ethnographic and scientific studies, the ethnographic documentation of the last two centuries is sprinkled with references to intoxicating plants about which very little is known, sometimes only the names they are called by local people. Many more plants are not even mentioned within the ethnobotanical treatises. Here, I focus on the tenatsali of the Zuñis, a plant widely mentioned in the oral literature and in the ethnographic descriptions of the ritual practices of this population, long resident in New Mexico. Still unidentified, anthropologists are divided on the question of whether it is a real plant or if it existed only at a mythical level. For the first time the mythological and ethnographic data concerning tenatsali are gathered together and analysed from an ethnobotanical point of view. The author comes to the conclusion that it is probably a real psychoactive plant or, more generally, an intoxicating source, kept secret by Zuñi initiatory groups and medicine-men, who perhaps continue to use it today.