Prosopis spp.

Using a term that is part of his Rarámuri (Tarahumara) heritage, Enrique Salmón explains the importance of iwígara in the introduction to Iwígara, the Kinship of Plants and People: American Indian Ethnobotanical Traditions and Science: “In a worldview based on iwígara, humans are no more important to the natural world than any other form of life. This notion influences how I lead my own life and guides many of my decisions. Knowing that I am related to everything around me and share breath with all living things helps me to focus on my responsibility to honor all forms of life. I carefully consider all living and non-living things when making choices or weighing actions I might take. In short, I see myself as one of many stewards of the land and natural world. I share breath with it, so I endeavor to minister to it with appropriate ritual, thought, and ceremony.” Clearly, this is a more complete and profound definition of what might be understood (and perhaps misunderstood) by the more common word “sacred” as it is freely used and even unthinkingly abused in a wide range of cultural contexts. In trying to decide which plants to include in his anthology of vegetal lives, Salmón says: “Before writing this book, I conferred with native plant practitioners, my professional ethnobotanical network, and with close friends. I asked these knowledge holders and wisdom keepers to help me compile a list of plants that are the most culturally relevant to North American native peoples.” 

There are 80 plant entries in Iwígara, a compendium based on a collective sense of respect for specific plants as well as ancestral knowledge that is practical in that it contributes to human wellbeing and survival. Included, of course, is the “revered being” Peyote (Lophophora williamsii), which Salmón presents in the personalized ceremonial context of the Native American Church: “Peyote and the NAC have been credited with saving the lives of thousands of American Indians who needed a path to help them gain a proper relationship with themselves, with their community, and with the spirit world.” But Salmón also acknowledges mesquite (Prosopis spp.) in his rigorous selection for being an important source of food, fuel, and medicine (see Beresford-Jones, Henciya et al., Rojas-Armas et al., and Salmón) as well as a keystone species for desert ecosystems that need to be carefully managed by humans so that, as Salmón puts it, “open mesquite groves in turn encourage native flora and fauna to remain in the area [and] natural diversity returns.”  Overexploiting in the case of both species has led to serious consequences: placement on the Endangered Species List in Texas in the contemporary case of peyote, and the collapse of the entire ancient Nasca civilization in coastal Peru when the Prosopis forests were cleared and the land was left vulnerable to both flooding and desertification. 

Microcosms: A Homage to Sacred Plants of the Americas seeks to express deep thanks and pay tribute to certain plants as well as their stewards who have been faithful to the spiritual pacts they have sustained with the natural world and the plant stories they have heard and preserved.  Some, but not all, of the species mentioned in our Plant Index fall in the category of what Schultes and Hofmann call “Plants of the Gods,” due to their psychoactive properties.  Prosopis, however, known popularly as mesquite, algarrobo, and huarango (among many other names) modifies the definition of what often is considered to constitute sacredness in perhaps an unexpected way: its wood is worthy of the gods. Or would it be more appropriate to say that Pachacamac, one of the most important Pre-Hispanic deities, found a way to reveal himself in a supreme vegetal vehicle capable of conquering time, by means of an exquisitely carved portrait, revered by waves of pilgrims for generation upon generation that has lasted beautifully intact until the present day for more than a millennium?  

The Pachacamac Idol, a wooden column more than eight feet tall and five inches in diameter, is now a major tourist attraction at the Museo de Sitio Pachacamac located south of Lima, Peru. A team of researchers headed by Marcela Sepúlveda recently conducted tests confirming that the wood is in all likelihood Prosopis pallida (a synonym of P. limensis) carbon-14 dated from 760-876 CE, which situates the artefact at the height of the Wari Empire in coastal Peru. The scientists also discovered that the idol was painted in at least three colors, including a red derived from cinnabar, a mercury mineral brought from a great distance and reserved for adorning only what is most highly-esteemed, no doubt as a means to highlight the god’s spiritual as well as economic and political power. Centuries before the Inca Empire reached its apogee, the Pachacamac Idol was the center of a major pilgrimage site and an oracle consulted even by the Emperor.  Over the course of time, the Pachacamac Idol demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt syncretically to evolving religious symbolic systems. In an article published in Archeology Magazine, Marley Brown cites archaeologist William Isbell of Binghamton University, who says, “I think the radiocarbon date clearly shows that whether the idol represents the principal image of Pachacamac or not, it was there for a long, long time and participated in a tremendous number of changes that must have occurred on the central coast over those centuries, spanning the Wari Empire, through the Ychsma period, then into the Inca Empire, and through the Inca right to the beginning of the Spanish colonial period.” 

The seemingly protean identity of Pachacamac links him to the sun and also to the earth in a powerful center for divination at the highest levels of different successive empires. Peruvian novelist and poet Pedro Favaron, author of essential studies on the spirituality of Amerindian cultures, meditates on Pachacamac in La senda del corazón after having survived a devastating earthquake himself on August 15, 2007 while traveling in the Samaca Valley, in the foothills of the Ica River. Favaron writes: “El manuscrito de Huarochirí, a fundamental text to approach the indigenous thought of the Andes, affirms that the waka Pachakamaq remains seated in deep meditation. A single movement of his head causes tremors; and it is said that if he were to rise, the whole earth could come to an end. Pachakamaq is the owner of the tremors; it is understood, then, that the tremors are caused by a living and conscious being with whom humans can enter into relationship and ask for mercy. For indigenous thought, the forces of nature are neither blind nor deaf, but respond to the prayers and respect of human beings.”

How did the Pachacamac Idol survive the wrath of the conquistadors? As the story goes, Hernando Pizarro visited its sacred site in 1533 with the intention of entering the sanctum and breaking the idol in front of the priestly caste in charge of the oracle. Ultimately, was it a higher priority for the Spaniards to satisfy their lust for gold as they searched every secret confine of the temple than to destroy the Pachacamac Idol itself? Did the furious, impure, sacrilegious foreign invader simply cast the painted wooden god from its pedestal in the dark chamber bereft of gold? Was the unimaginably hard god in organic form impossible to snap into pieces with ease? These questions remain unanswered. Even so, amazingly, the idol currently on display at the Museo de Sitio near Lima was rediscovered in the Painted Temple’s North Atrium in 1938 by Albert Giesecke, who excavated the sculpture from the rubble where it was hidden. Now, as visitors crowd around the Pachacamac Idol in a glass case in Peru, a trembling of the earth in Trujillo, Spain shifts the dusty remains of Hernando Pizarro in his tomb.

Additionally, Prosopis posts, carefully placed in cemetery settings as mortuary furniture carved with human features, are part of the traditional Andean ayllu kinship communities and are linked to ancestor worship as David Beresford-Jones affirms in his essential study The Lost Woodlands of Ancient Nasca: A Case-Study in Ecological and Cultural Collapse (based on his doctoral dissertation at the University of Cambridge). Furthermore, as Beresford-Jones indicates, the stunning Nasca geoglyph commonly referred to simply as “The Tree” is in fact a depiction of the huarango (Prosopis pallida). Its defining lines, he says, like those of all the varied Nasca figures are best interpreted as ritual pathways, part of a sacred geography shaped by humans preoccupied with “fertility and water rites.”  It is evident to Beresford-Jones that the value of this species goes beyond its importance for nourishment, shelter and medicine. He states in no uncertain environmental terms that “Prosopis is far more than a valuable resource for humans: it is crucial to the integration of the desert ecosystem of which they are a part. No other desert tree has as pervasive an influence upon neighboring vegetation, soils, sub-canopy microclimate, wildlife and insect populations.” The huarango, as a keystone species anchoring the entire desert ecosystem, is an especially powerful emblem of abundance, and might be considered a Nasca society equivalent of a biblical tree of life in the most literal sense. 

Photograph of Nasca geoglyph Huarango Tree by Air Pano.
Photograph of Nasca geoglyph Huarango Tree by Air Pano.

Beresford-Jones’s studies form the basis of a tragic, cautionary tale. He provides ample evidence that the collapse of the Nasca culture is due to human agency, the mismanagement of a primary resource that ensured survival, namely the deforestation of the Prosopis woodlands. As Beresford-Jones puts it in the simplest of terms: only humans chop down trees. The late Nasca period, then, was characterized by clearcut forests and poor soil subject to wind and water erosion, damage to irrigation systems and a general degradation of an ecosystem that became increasingly arid. Archaeological evidence shows that, simultaneously, Indigenous population centers and ceremonial sites were abandoned and also that refined ceramic traditions became ever more crude. 

The devastation continues in the present, with the remaining huarango trees falling to become mesquite charcoal to be used in barbecue fires at fast food and roadside restaurants. And this brings us full circle to where we began with Enrique Salmón’s definition of iwígara, a powerful Amerindian idea, manifesting itself under many different names, that must of necessity mitigate destructive human behavior and orient our collective future actions so that in the contemporary world we can also learn from the catastrophic mistakes made by the brilliant creators of the Nazca lines.  

The following short aesthetically-compelling film about the huarango tree, was provided by Kathryn Huber and Peruvian documentary filmmaker Delia Ackerman.

And some hopeful news about current efforts to reforest the coastal Peruvian desert with Prosopis seedlings in an attempt to ameliorate the damage caused by the removal of 99% of the original vegetation can be found here.

For the specimens of Prosopis that we were able to use to create the confocal images included in the Plant Index, we would like to express our deep gratitude to agroforestry expert and botanical sleuth Neil Logan, who is completing a forthcoming book on the fascinating story of Kiawe/Prosopis in Hawai’i.

An Historical Overview of the Kiawe Tree in Hawaii

(Based on the forthcoming book The Tree)

By Neil Logan

The genus Neltuma (formerly Prosopis), commonly referred to as Mesquite or Algarroba, is a leguminous tree that produces nutritious fruit and thrives in arid lands. Its range extends from the greater southwest of North America, south through Mexico and Central America, throughout Andean valleys, blanketing the mountainous coast of South America to southern Chile, occasionally spilling over to the eastern plains. This 2.5 million-year-old ecological corridor was planted and maintained by the lifeways of megafauna. The abundant calories, refuge, and biodiversity of flora and fauna provided by Mesquite forests sustained the transcontinental migration of humans for tens of thousands of years. One Mesquite in particular, the Peruvian Huarango (Neltuma limensis), supported the rise of people who broke through the forest canopy while standing upon the stone pyramids they erected. Revered by local people for millennia, Huarango wood was carved into the likeness of a powerful oracle, Pachacamac, considered one of the most significant deities of pre-Hispanic people of the region. 

Beginning in the 16th century, the Huarango was caught up in a wave of human greed that attempted to transform it into an instrument of colonization. The Conquistadors sought gold and silver in the Andes. Their Jesuit Catholic cohorts required wine to perform religious ceremonies. The Huarango forests were cleared to plant vineyards, providing lumber for trellising grapevines. Their trunks used to press the grapes and their wood to fire the distillation process to make brandy. Whole forests were cut to provide fuel for smelting precious metals into transportable bars as well as to dismantle and subjugate the cultures and religious practices that were intricately tied to the Huarango and its vibrant forest ecosystem. Jesuits and other colonizers in S. America considered this tree an extremely valuable resource and saw its potential for newly colonized lands such as the Sandwich Islands.

At the end of the late 1700s, foreigners increasingly visited the Hawaiian Islands. Whalers using Hawaii as a refueling stop required large quantities of salted beef and firewood. Shipping vessels loaded the newly discovered (by the Englishmen) sandalwood heartwood logs for transport to Canton, China, where they could be traded for local goods that were highly desired back on the coast of New England. Cattle were first introduced in Hawaii around this time. The combination of sandalwood logging, firewood extraction, and cattle formed a triple assault that deforested and devastated the Hawaiian ecosystem.

Circa 1827, King Charles X of France was persuaded by John Reeves to supply ships, equipment, agricultural specialists and priests to pioneer a French Catholic Agricultural Mission in Hawaii with the goal of producing bread and wine for France. Departing from Bordeaux, France, the group voyaged across the Atlantic Ocean and around Cape Horn, making stops in Chile and Peru, before sailing on to Oahu. Father Alexis Bachelot was the priest in charge. He and several others in the group surveyed what was left of the former Jesuit wine-producing haciendas along the coast near Lima, Peru. The Catholic mission to Hawaii was short-lived. However, before leaving, Bachelot was documented as having planted a tree in front of the church from seed provided by the Royal Garden in Paris from Peruvian Huarango trees. That single tree has been rumored to be the original Mesquite tree in Hawaii.

With some help from the Hawaiian Vaquero (cowboy), Kiawe (as the Mesquite/Huarango became known by Hawaiians) was spread across the dry coasts of the main islands to provide firewood and cattle feed. Contrary to popular belief, Kiawe didn’t displace native tree species as a foreign invasive weed. Rather, as a pioneer species, it filled the ecological vacuum left by previous decades of deforestation. While the cattle industry wound down over the last 60 years, the tourism industry has blossomed. The population of Kiawe forests in Hawaii peaked circa 1960 and have been in decline at a rate of almost 2% each year.

Many trees are integral to Hawaiian culture. Some trees in particular stand out as iconic and embody the essence of Hawaiian cultural identity, namely Koa (Acacia koa), Ohia (Metrosideros polymorpha), and Ulu (Artocarpus altilis). Ohia is the most common and widely distributed tree throughout the islands. It is a biogenic tree: a pioneer and accumulation species whose biomass provides the raw materials comprising the foundation of the soil feeding the Hawaiian rainforest. Its blossoms are associated with the goddess Pele. Koa is a nitrogen-fixing legume that emerges through and succeeds Ohia at higher elevations. Its hardwood is used to carve canoes and religious artifacts. Koa creates the fertile conditions required by the endangered ‘iliahi sandalwood (Santalum paniculatum). Ulu (aka Breadfruit) is a fig relative, largely confined to below 2,000’ elevation, which produces large starch-rich fruit that forms a dietary staple throughout Polynesia.

In arid South America, Huarango/Kiawe is a biogenic pioneer species: it generates fecund ecosystems through its deep tap root, nitrogen-fixing root Rhizobium, with the canopy and leaves acting as a fog comb to gather atmospheric moisture and deposit it groundward, and thereby build soil through the accumulation of regularly-shed leaves, flowers, and fruit. Huarango/Kiawe forests support a high biodiversity of flora and fauna. The fruit provides starch and protein that forms the nutritional foundation of the entire ecosystem and supported the rise of early civilizations in South America. To the people of the Pacific coast of South America, Huarango/Kiawe is their Ohia, Koa, and Ulu, all-in-one. Since it was used as a staple to make a manner of ‘bread’, it could be considered the breadfruit of arid Peru.

The present situation of Kiawe in Hawaii is something like this: imagine if someone had brought breadfruit to Peru 230 years ago, and it had thrived all across the Peruvian coast. Nobody there bothered to learn about breadfruit and all of the gifts it provides, rather they started ripping it out and burning it, or throwing it in the trash. How would Hawaiians feel if that was happening to their sacred tree in a foreign land? This is what has been happening with Kiawe in Hawaii for the last 60 years.

Both cultures (collectively Hawaiian and Coastal Peruvian, the people and their respective plants) were negatively impacted by the same consciousness of colonization. Rather than seeing Kiawe in the Hawaiian context solely as a symbol of colonization and what was lost (a view that is arguably an internalized extension of colonization itself), it can be viewed also as an emblem of solidarity between similarly affected people: a totem reminder of the assault on language, culture, identity and place, that has destroyed people and ecosystems around the globe. Now the world is at risk of losing this ancient ally both in Hawaii and Peru. By joining forces with this ancient tree, it is possible to harness the tree’s biogenic life-giving properties in Hawaii (as food and as an aid to reforestation) as well as in Peru (reversing desertification and reinforcing traditional cultural identity). Globally, the tree (and its relatives) has incredible potential to contribute significantly to global food security and to halt the desertification of arid lands.

The Kiawe tree planted by Father Bachelot in Hawaii in a photo taken in 1902.

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