Peanut Artwork as Shamanistic Symbolism

At first consideration a peanut may seem to be a boring plant. It is widely available today, it is not complicated to grow, process, or eat, it does not look particularly interesting, and its taste is mild. However, through examining the botany and history of the peanut, we may find something mysterious, even magical about the seemingly average legume. Studying the plant’s behavior as well as the context and depiction of the peanut in Moche art will lead us to see that the peanut deserves a place among the culturally significant and shamanistic flora of the ancient Americas alongside corn, chili peppers, chocolate and peyote.

Peanuts are a native legume of South America and are now grown in warm and temperate climates around the world[i]. The first archaeological evidence pointing to the domestication of peanuts was discovered in Northern Peru, and the findings and analysis were published in 2007[ii]. The article dates the oldest domesticated peanut plants to around 7,600 years ago, or 5600 B.C.E. This time period is well before the Moche culture that we are considering in the analysis of peanut art, but shows us that the crop had a very long history in the area by the time the Moche came into being.

The way that peanuts grow is somewhat strange. Generally plants will grow up out of the ground, flower, and then their flowers will turn into fruit, or fall off. In the peanut plant’s case, after flowering, the flowers will instead bend their stems, or pegs, down to the earth and start growing back down into the soil. Their fruits will mingle with their roots, forming a circle out of the entire plant. Underground the flowers will turn into pods, in which the seeds (peanuts) will grow. The nuts can then be harvested, though if they are left underground too long the shells will rot[iii]. The peanut is an entirely self-pollinating plant[iv], and the process by which it grows guarantees that its seeds will be returned to the soil. It is entirely self-sufficient, and will only be interrupted or changed through outside forces such as cross-pollination from bees or domestication and crossbreeding from humans. We will soon see how all of these natural, botanical factors will relate to the ancient American, shamanistic viewpoint of the Moche people. 

First we must clarify that a “shamanistic viewpoint” is one that generally relates to respect and reverence for nature. Shamanism is not necessarily a religious practice, but primarily a method of healing. Visions may be seen as a glimpse into reality, as opposed to seeing “heaven” or “hell” or hallucinating. Shamanism incorporates the entire natural and visionary world into one sense of reality and life. Common themes that arise in shamanism may be the mysterious behaviors of plants and animals at night and a duality among plants or animals that represent the world as we see it and the world seen in visions. This visionary world may be referred to as an “underworld” because often visions will give the beholder a sense that everything has been flipped upside-down, as if they are underground. These two ideas can form into the idea of something unseen being hidden inside something else: mystery and duality in one. Furthermore, the circle is a recurring theme in shamanism; it relates to two things coming into one, like the circle of the dark and light of the night and day.[v]

The peanut appears to be an unassuming plant. It is not an entheogenic substance (though it may be an obscure and modern slang word for either depressants, or methamphetamines and there are many accounts of teens trying to smoke the shells[vi]). It does not provoke visions, nor do the seeds themselves seem to have interesting or deceitful qualities, like the color changing properties of the indigo plant or the intertwining pattern of the caapi vine. One possible connection may be the effects a peanut plant could have on someone with an allergy to the legume. The fact that it could cause a person to swell up, have trouble breathing, break out in a rash, or even die, could be construed as the plant having a great power and rage over certain people, or at certain times. In examining its botany we can detect some other behaviors of the plant that might have been appealing to a shamanistic viewpoint.

It is significant that peanuts grow underground. Most legumes grow above ground, and therefore their growth is easy to observe. Peanuts are mysterious; it is impossible to know with certainty when a particular peanut is ready to be harvested without digging it up. This mystery, as well as the darkness of underground, and the “underness” relating to the underworld or visionary world all point to main themes of shamanism. The form of a peanut is also important. The nuts or seeds grow inside a shelled pod. The contents are hidden until the shell is broken, and only then will one know not only what it is but also how much (i.e. how many seeds) is inside. Finally, the self-pollinating aspect of the plant relates to shamanism through the idea that intersex people were abnormal and therefore viewed as more in touch with the spirit world and fit for shamanism.

We start our analysis with the most symbolic piece of them all: the peanut-human-flautist. There is more than one of these vessels, but we will be looking at the most detailed [Figure1]. The vessel shows a recumbent, anthropomorphic peanut playing a flute. We know that music has always been associated with religious and shamanic rituals. This is our first clue that the peanut relates to shamanism, and that this may be a depiction of the spirit of the peanut. The flute may also represent the peg of the plant, reaching up above ground to the surface to find air and sun. The figure is probably recumbent because peanuts are long and lay horizontally, and also grow underground, in the dark, where people are buried. Its head and arms are coming out of the main peanut shape, as if it is emerging or about to get up. This may signify the time when a peanut is ready to harvest, and perhaps shamans hear the peanut spirit speaking to them when they are mature. The flute could symbolize this communication, or shamans may have even heard a flute playing. Perhaps a specific ritual when a flute is playing is when shamans have access to the peanut spirit. The peanut may even represent a shaman, as shamans and peanuts temporarily resided in the underworld, or underground. The figure does not seem to be distinctly male or female, just like a peanut plant and like the shamanistic power attributed to intersex people. The possible connotations are vast, and all lead to a strong connection between shamanism and peanuts.

[i] (Putnam, 1991)

[ii] (Dillehay, 2007)

[iii] (Putnam, 1991)

[iv] (Putnam, 1991)

[v] (Stone, 2012)

[vi] (Drug Slang Dictionary - Words Starting With P, 2005)