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Written by Peter T Furst   
Tuesday, 15 February 2011 00:00


There is another hallucinogenic plant in the mythology of the Huichols, anthropomorphized as Kieri Tewiyari, Kieri Person, whose special powers and relationship to the Sun deity are acknowledged with offerings of prayer arrows and other gifts. However, if Kieri (pronounced ki-yeri) is used at all, it is only rarely, in secrecy, and is generally disapproved. For many Huichols regard Kieri as a dangerous sorcerer whose effects, unlike those of peyote, may cause permanent insanity and even death.

Kieri, whose story "from ancient times" is recited by shamans especially in the context of the peyote ceremonies, grows in remote and rocky places in and about the mountainous Huichol country, with a prominent cluster of sharp rock pinnacles, rising precipitously at the edge of Cora territory in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental, generally thought to be his proper home. It is said that Kieri established himself at this formidable redoubt—which, incidentally, also served as a last bastion of armed Indian resistance against the Spaniards in 1722—after his defeat by the deer god and culture hero Kauyumarie.

What does this Kieri look like? In his plant form, say the Huichols, Kieri has white, funnel-shaped flowers and spiny seed pods. With the enchanting music of his violin he lures the unwary and bids them taste of his leaves, his flowers, his roots, and his seeds. But whoever obeys his wiles suffers insanity or death: people bewitched by Kieri will believe themselves to be birds, for example, able to fly from the highest rocks, but unless they are saved by a shaman with the aid of peyote and Kauyumarie, they will dash themselves to death below. Or, if they heed Kieri's urgings and eat more and more of him, they will fall into a deep sleep and never awaken, because only the shaman knows in what manner to deal with such a sorcerer. Nevertheless, one must respect Kieri for his supernatural power, and when one encounters him one should deposit the proper offerings, such as prayer arrows, and when one passes his rocky abode in the distance, one should make appropriate ritual gestures in his direction. The peyote pilgrims whom we accompanied to Wiriktita in 1968 did in fact hold a special ceremony when they came within sight of the aforementioned rocky pinnacles in Nayarit, including the burning of candles (as miniature effigies of the fire deity), and propitiatory chants and gestures toward Kieri's dwelling place.

Conventional wisdom has long held that Kieri is Datura inoxia (meteloides). Robert Zingg (1938) identified it as such, and the descriptions of the plant collected by Barbara G. Myerhoff and myself in 1964/1966 accorded with most of its salient characteristics. These included, in particular, funnel-shaped flowers and the spiny seed pods from which "thorn apple," one of the popular names for two species, D. inoxia and D. stramonium, is derived (Furst and Myerhoff, 1966:3-39; 1972:53-106). ("Extract of Thorn Apple" is also the name under which medicinal Datura preparations were bottled and marketed by the Shakers in the nineteenth century). The identification of Kieri as Datura now appears to have been correct only for part of the Huichol country. While it accords with the probable ultimate origins of the ancestral Huichols in the Southwest, where Datura continues to play an important role, especially among the Zuni, according to Timothy Knab (personal communication), a field worker in anthropological linguistics, Huichol informants in the region visited by him attributed the name Kieri to a species of Solandra, a genus closely related to and resembling to some degree the Daturas and probably chemically similar to them. While Solandra use in a strictly ceremonial context has not been previously reported, M. Martinez (1966) identified hueipatli , said to have been a narcotic used in central Mexico at the time of the Conquest, as Solandra guerrerensis.* The same Mexican scholar, who also authored a classic modern work on medicinal plants, Las Plantas Medicinales de Mxico (1959), notes that S. guerrerensis is still employed by some Indians in the state of Guerrero.


Datura. Two species, as depicted in the sixteenth-century Aztec herbal known as the Codex Badianus.

Although they make offerings to the plant, call it the "real Kieri," and express great awe, if not indeed fear, of it, no Huichols today appear to be using Solandra medicinally or hallucinogenically. But the mythic descriptions of the powers of Kieri to bewitch and transform are too specific not to be based on actual experience, presumably at some time in the past. if Kieri is Datura in one part of the rugged Huichol country and Solandra in another, or if, as well may be the case, there are two Kieris, in the main potentially malevolent, one manifesting himself in Datura and the other in Solandra, we are confronted with the phenomenon of a supernatural being who manifests himself in the same culture in two related but distinct solanaceous species. But considering that Datura and Solandra share similar potentially dangerous chemical properties, that would perhaps not be so strange.

The early chroniclers reported that the Aztec priests administered to those to be sacrificed an herbal anodyne, so that they did not feel the pain. Although the Aztec name for the unidentified plant was not one of those used for Datura, some botanists and pharmacologists have thought it might nonetheless have been a Datura, whose effects are known to be analgesic. But there was no certainty, and the real identity of the mysterious narcotic has remained in question since the sixteenth century. If Solandra turns out to possess the same analgesic properties as its close relative Datura, the mystery of the elusive hallucinogenic yauhtli may at last have been solved.

Myth as History

However this turns out, the Huichol tale of Kieri has a decidedly historical flavor. We hear of him acting like a shaman—curing, singing, playing his drum, conversing with the solar deity and seeking his aid. Kauyumarie watches and decides that Kieri is really an evil sorcerer who deceives the people. Only when he has learned all he can of Kieri's "secrets"—i.e. magic —does Kauyumarie decide to attack him. In the final struggle to overcome his adversary, he invokes the aid of the peyote cactus, which wards off Kieri's sickness projectiles, allowing Kauyumarie to shoot five arrows into the enemy's chest. Kieri falls, but instead of dying is allowed by his protector, the Sun, to transform into a flowering plant. In this form he flies away to his secret hiding place up in the rocks, where those who respect his magical powers pay him homage and often find themselves bewitched by his poison, which is proffered with such entreaties as, "Here, eat this, it is better than peyote."

One is tempted to read this as history couched in mythic terms because there must have been a time in Huichol prehistory when an ideological shift occurred among some of their Uto-Aztecan ancestors, away from the Datura cults characteristic of the Southwest to the more benign peyote, perhaps when they first came upon Lophophora williamsii in the course of their southward expansion from the original homeland of this important language family in the Arizona-Sonora desert. Since Datura, which can be fatal, and the more benign peyote are somewhat dissimilar experiential phenomena, such a change might have had some disruptive effects on the traditional magicoreligious life of the society and its relationship with the supernatural. Perhaps the Kieri-Kauyumarie tradition recalls an actual rivalry between the two systems, symbolized by the priest-shamans of the competing sacred plants, or else the tradition collapses into manageable form a more gradual evolutionary transition from the one to the other after a period of coexistence, which has continued, at least in symbolic form, to the present day. Kieri's supernatural power (whether manifested in Datura or Solandra or both) is, after all, still acknowledged in prayer offerings, meant not only to ward off evil but also to to ensure fertility, rain, and other good things. To some degree this recalls the final displacement of the "mescal bean" by peyote among the Indians of the Southern Plains toward the end of the nineteenth century (a process that, considering the fact that peyote appears in the archaeological record in South Texas alongside the mescal bean as early as A.D. 800, may have had its beginning long ago). However, unlike Datura, the traditional Sophora bean was not consigned to the realm of sorcery but was incorporated into the new material culture of the peyote religion at least as an ornamental component.

Natural and Cultural History of Datura

Unlike peyote and other exclusively New World hallucinogens, the genus Datura is cosmopolitan and it and other members of the Solanaceae (potato or nightshade family) have played a role in religion, magic, divination, sorcery, and medicine in different parts of the world, apparently since ancient times. The family consists of more than 90 genera, with no less than 2400 species, including such disparate plants as the potato, eggplant, nightshade, peppers, tomato, tobacco, petunia, Datura, and many others. Only a few of these are known to be truly hallucinogenic, although Mesoamerican Indians, among others, attribute at least narcotic or medicinal properties to several solanaceous genera, among them Solandra and species of Solanum.

Apart from tobacco, which is in a class by itself, some of the Solanaceae are important only for nutrition (although even some of these, including the tomato and potato, contain toxic principles in the leaves or stalks but not in the edible fruit). But others, like the well-known Atropa belladonna, Hyoscyamus , and the Daturas are valued for psychotropic alkaloids, of which a number have passed from herbal into modern medicine.

Atropa belladonna, also called deadly nightshade and, in European folk usage, sorcerer's herb, is the source of several important drugs, of which atropine is the best known. The genus Atropa, whose prinicipal active alkaloid, scopolamine, occurs in four species in combination with other alkaloids, is native to the Old World and is found in Europe as well as Central and southern Asia. Henbane, Hyoscyamus niger, , source of the important medical drug hyoscyamus, is one of about 20 species of the genus, which is native tio Europe, northern Africa, and southwestern and central Asia.

The main tropane alkaloids in the famous mandrake, Mandragora officianarum, are hyoscyamine, scopolamine, and mandragorina. Six species of Mandragora are found from the Mediterranean to the Himalayas (Schultes, 1970; see also Schultes and Hofmann, 1973, pp. 161-191).


Both hemispheres share the genus Datura, and both have used it. Not surprisingly, however, in light of the stress on the ecstatic experience by most Native Americans, more species were utilized in the New World, and the genus achieved a much higher and more lasting status, being employed in divination, prophecy, ecstatic initiation, ritual intoxication, diagnosis, and medicine. It is also widely employed to give extra potency to ritual beverages, both of the hallucinogenic and the fermented variety. So, for example, the Tarahumara Indians of Chihuahua even now sometimes add Datura inoxia to tesgüino, a fermented drink made from sprouted maize which the Huichols call nawa, while in South America the Jivaro of Ecuador, for example, strengthen nafima, the hallucinogenic beverage made basically from a species of Banisteriopsis, by adding a pecies of Datura of the arborescent subgenus Brugmansia, and sometimes also guayusa, a stimulating caffeine-containing tea made from Ilex guayusa, a species of holly.

In curing, Datura preparations served to place the doctor in touch with the supernaturals for the purpose of ascertaining the cause of the illness, but were also used as medicine for the patient, being applied both externally and internally. Not only the Aztecs but many other Indians were quite familiar with the analgesic effects of Datura and used it effectively to alleviate pain. Matilda Coxe Stevenson (1915), for example, reports that among the Zuiii of New Mexico, who ascribe divine origin to Datura inoxia and whose Rain Priest Fraternity has a special relationship to the sacred plant, the curer administers the root to

 . . render his patient unconscious while he performs simple operations—setting fractured limbs, treating dislocations, making incisions for removing pus, eradicating diseases of the uterus, and the like. (p. 41)

She also reports witnessing an operation in which the Zuni curer used a flint knife to open the abscessed breast of a woman who had been placed into a deep sleep with Datura inoxia (then still called D. meteloides). When she awoke she said she had experienced only beautiful dreams but no pain whatever.

The principal alkaloids in the fifteen to twenty species that comprise the genus Datura and its four subgroups are hyoscyamine, norhyoscyamine, and scopolamine, all belonging to the tropane series. Depending on ecological factors, and possibly on genetic differences, there is considerable variation in the alkaloidal content even of the same species and their different parts. So, for example, scopolamine constitutes from 50 to 60 percent of the total base content of the arborescent Datura candida growing in the Andes, but only 30 to 40 percent for the same species cultivated in England or Hawaii (Schultes, 1970:584). Similar differences have been recorded for other alkaloids. Here again we find the Indians to have been careful observers. Schultes notes that the alkaloidal content of cultivated D. candida plants, for example, has been proved experimentally to correlate closely with accounts of their relative toxicity by the Indians of Sibundoy, Colombia, who certainly had no access to a chemical laboratory. The same kind of sophistication is also reflected in the selection of different parts of the Daturas (as of other hallucinogenic species) in accordance with their proven potency.

Effects of Datura Intoxication

The four subgroups of the genus are: (1) Stramonium , with three species in the two hemispheres; (2) Dutra, with six species; (3) Ceratocaulis, with only one, but very interesting, semiaquatic Mexican species whose supernatural spirit Indian curers invoke for the treatment of certain diseases; and (4) Brugmansia, a group of tree Daturas with often very showy flowers that were formerly exclusive to South America but are now found in many parts of the world as cultivated ornamentals.

Depending on dosage, the effects of the active alkaloids of Daturascopolamine, for example—have been found experimentally to extend from a feeling of lassitude through hallucination to deep, dreamless sleep and loss of consciousness, with death possible in the absence of effective countermeasures. The early accounts are correct: Datura can kill, and it can apparently also be administered by an experienced person in such amounts and in such ways as to bring about temporary derangement and even permanent insanity, which is precisely why the genus has entered the practice of witchcraft.

In these respects the Daturas of course differ considerably from other hallucinogens, whose most drastic effects might be a "bad trip" but which are not known to be capable of physiological damage. The Daturas and the cytisine-containing "mescal bean" are thus in a very different class from other sacred plants in the psychedelic pharmacopoeia of American Indians. In this connection I recall a story I heard from a competent, well-educated, and trustworthy informant in Cuernavaca, Mexico, who had occasion to observe the disastrous effects of repeated, deliberate applications of Datura to an individual said to have been responsible for the betrayal and death of a popular peasant leader in the state of Morelos some years ago.

A quick death having been judged too benign a punishment by his captors, the wretched man was turned over to a local bruja—a word meaning "witch," but applied also to folk healers or curanderas. In my experience most Mexican folk healers are not only accomplished herbalists but generally effective psychologists, who might have much to teach their university-educated colleagues if these were only willing to listen. In any event, it seems that by a judicious combination of repeated infusions of toloache (D. inoxia) and a play on his guilt feelings, together with hypnotic suggestion, she brought the man to a state where for several months, until his death, he walked, barked, fed, and was treated like a dog—a fate some of the local people seemed to think he deserved only too well. Not only the proven veracity of my informant but the results of laboratory experiments with the chemicals in Datura lend weight to this tale of elementary justice derived from ancient knowledge of the properties of plants.

Datura among North American Indians

None of the above should be taken to mean that the negative potential of Datura in any sense, or anywhere, outweighed its positive role in the indigenous ritual and symbolic systems. On the contrary, most Indians in North and South America have used these plants solely for positive purposes, such as initiation of boys and their integration into adulthood and full participation in tribal culture through ecstatic confrontation of the truth of the ancestral ways; for individual and communal vision seeking and communication with ancestors, deities, and spirits of land, air, and water; and for divination, prophecy, curing, and the alleviation of physical and mental distress.

Apart from "thorn apple," a popular name for Datura in the United States has long been "Jamestown Weed," commonly shortened to "Jimsonweed." Properly, this refers only to the eastern species, Datura stramonium; the name itself stems from an incident involving some English soldiers on their way to quell a rebellion led by a Lieutenant Bacon, at Jamestown, Virginia, in the seventeenth century. Robert Beverly (ca. 1673-ca. 1722), in his History and Present State of Virginia (1705), describes what happened:

The James Town Weed (which resembles the Thorny Apple of Peru, and I take to be the plant so called) is supposed to be one the greatest Coolers in our World. This being an early Plant, was gather'd very young for a boil'd Salad, by some of the Soldiers sent thither, to pacify the Troubles of Bacon; and some of them eat plentifully of it, the Effect of which was a very pleasant Comedy; for they turn'd natural Fools upon it for several Days; One would blow up a Feather in the air; another would dart Straws at it with much Fury; and another stark naked was sitting up in a Corner, like a Monkey, grinning and making Mows at them; a Fourth would fondly kiss, and paw his Companions, and snear in their Faces, with a Countenance more antick, than any in a Dutch Droll. In this frantick Condition they were confined, lest they should in their Folly destroy themselves; though it was observed, that all their Actions were full of Innocence and good Nature. Indeed, they were not very cleanly; for they would have wallowed in their own Excrements, if they had not been prevented. A Thousand such simple Tricks they played, and after Eleven Days, returned to themselves again, not remembering any thing that had pass'd. (Quoted in Schleiffer, 1973:129-130)

The soldiers claimed they had picked Datura stramonium because they thought it might be a savory pot herb, but chances are that they had really learned of the intoxicating effects from the original inhabitants of Virginia, who used Datura in boys' initiation rites that resembled the toloache ceremonies of California Indians. The characteristic death-rebirth theme of rites of passage clearly emerges from Beverly's rather quaint but perceptive description of what he calls "the Solemnity of Huskanawing." When the time for initiation had been set by the elders, the young men and boys were taken into the forest, where they were kept in strict seclusion in a specially constructed hut of latticework. After long fasting and instruction, they were given repeated decoctions of Datura root, called wysoccan , which brought on a state of apparently violent intoxication that lasted from 18 to 20 days. During this crucial period the boys were supposed to shed themselves of all memory of their youth. When the shamans felt that the boys had drunk enough, the dosages were gradually reduced, and the initiates, carefully guarded, allowed to return to their homes. As they came out of their intoxication they had to watch themselves, and were watched by the shamans, lest there be any remembrance of their former state of childhood. If that happened they had to be "huskanawed" again, and since in that event even greater quantities of wysoccan were required, the second initiatory ordeal sometimes ended in death:

Thus they must pretend to have forgot the very use of their Tongues, so as not to be able to speak, nor understand any thing that is spoken, till they learn it again. Now whether this be real or counterfeit, I don't know; but certain it is, that they will not for some time take notice of any body, nor any thing, with which they were before acquainted, being still under the guard of their Keepers, who constantly wait upon them every where, till they have learnt all things perfectly over again. Thus they unlive their former lives, and commence Men, by forgetting that they ever have been Boys. . . .

Further, the rite of passage and the violent Datura intoxication was to undo whatever bonds or prejudices the initiates had formed toward "persons and things" during their childhood:

They hope by this proceeding, to root out all the prepossessions and unreasonable prejudices which are fixt in the minds of Children. So that, when the Young men come to themselves again, their Reason may act freely, without being bypass'd by the Cheats of Custom and Education. Thus also they become discharged from the remembrance of any tyes by Blood, and are establish't in a state of equality and perfect freedom, to order their actions, and dispose of their persons, as they think fit, without any other Controul, than that of the Law of Nature. By this means also they become qualify'd when they have any Publick Office, equally and impartially to administer Justice, without having respect either to Friend or Relation. (Quoted in Schleiffer, 1973: pp. 130-132)

Initiation Rites in California

An Indian so initiated would not likely have suffered an "identity crisis." Would that we and our parents had been so fortunate in knowing when the psychological boundary between childhood and adulthood had been crossed!
In California, the toloache initiation cult originated among the Shoshonean (Uto-Aztecan) peoples of the south, but some of its features spread as far north as the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys. The puberty-rite aspect with its prominent death-rebirth theme was especially well developed among such Southern Californians as the Diegeño and Luiseño, for whom the Datura cult stood at the very heart of the entire religious system (Kroeber, 1953). In the main, only boys were initiated with toloache, girls having their own puberty rituals, but among some tribes, especially in the north, girls could also take Datura.

Among the Luiseño, among whom the cult was especially well developed, the boys' puberty ceremony was not conducted annually, or even at a fixed season, but performed every few years—whenever a sufficient number of youths were judged to be ready for initiation. Also, any man, or even a visitor from some other group, who had never taken toloache (Datura was drunk only once in a lifetime), was given the drug along with the youngsters, to whom the drink was administered at night, in a specially consecrated secluded place, following a period of food restrictions and instruction. The dried roots of Datura inoxia were pounded in freshly painted mortars that were used for no other purpose and were kept in sacred hiding places. The powdered root, mixed with hot water, was drunk from the mortar itself, each boy in turn kneeling before it, with the ceremonial manager holding his head, to pull it back when it was thought he had had enough. Following the drinking the boys were taken charge of by men who assisted them in the processions and dances that followed, including ceremonial circuits around the fire.

Before long the drug took effect and the boys fell unconscious. They were then carried into a small enclosure where they lay stupefied, watched by some of the men. The duration of complete narcosis varied from group to group. The Diegeño gave warm water to the boys after one night to help them recover. Among the Luiseño the intoxication seems to have lasted longer, up to three nights, but there must have been considerable individual variation, since not all the initiates were of the same age and size, and there was no definite measure of the amount of root used. In any event, the effect of the drug was powerful and the Luiseño reported some fatal cases. Whatever the initiates experienced in the course of the trance,

. . . becomes of lifelong intimate sanctity to them. This vision is usually an animal, and at least at times they learn from it a song which they keep as their own. It seems also that they will not kill any individual of the species. It is clear that the concept of the vision corresponds exactly with what among certain primitive tribes has been unfortunately denominated the "personal totem." It is certain that a special and individual relation of a supernatural kind is believed to exist forever after between the dreamer and the dream. The similarity to shamanism is also obvious; but it would be misleading to name the Luiseño institution outright "shamanistic" or "totemic." (Kroeber, 1953:669-670)

Nonetheless, the final ritual, which takes place about two months after the toloache drinking, is unmistakable in its similarity to shamanistic mythology the world over. The central figure in this ceremony is called wanawut , a man-sized animal-like effigy with a body, head, arms, legs, and sometimes a tail, made of mesh or netting of milkweed or nettle twine, that is laid in a trench, with three or four flat stones set upon it:

Each boy in turn now enters the trench, supported by the old man who has acted as his sponsor, and at a signal leaps from stone to stone. Should he slip, it is an indication that he will die soon. Very small boys are partially assisted by the old men. When all have jumped, they help the old men push the earth into the trench, burying the figure. The symbolism of this strange rite clearly refers to life and death. The trench represents the grave: the Luiseño cremated their corpses over a pit which was filled when the embers and bones had sunk in. The figure is human. It is specifically said to denote the Milky Way—otherwise a symbol of the spirit or soul. There seems also to be present the idea that the spirit of the dead is to be tied, perhaps to the sky, at any rate away from the earth; and the cordage of the object is probably significant in this regard. (Kroeber, 1953:671-672)

After the burial of the wanawut , there was dancing through the night, ending with a fire dance and the destruction by fire of the brush enclosure in which the toloache drinking took place. The boys had now forever left their childhood days behind. The Datura had done its sacred work and they would never taste it again.

Transcending "Ordinary Reality"

The ritual use of Datura inoxia in boys' puberty rites of the southern California Cahuilla has been described by several anthropologists (e.g. Kroeber, 1908; Hooper, 1920; Strong, 1929, and, most recently, Bean, 1972); the most complete account is that of William Duncan Strong (1929: 173-175), who noted that the Cahuilla regarded Datura as a great shaman with whom they could communicate in the course of their ceremonies. There were special manet songs connected with the Datura rituals which only the shamans could understand, because they were not in the everyday Cahuilla tongue but in a special esoteric "ocean language" addressed to the shamans and supernatural beings that lived on the floor of the sea.

An extensive discussion of what has survived of the multiple meanings and uses of Datura among the modern Cahuilla, whose language belongs to the Shoshonean branch of Uto-Aztecan and who are historically related not only to their Shoshonean-speaking neighbors but also to the Hopi of Arizona, and, more distantly, to the Huichols, the Cora, and other speakers of Uto-Aztecan tongues in Mesoamerica, can be found in a recent work on Cahuilla ethnobotany by anthropologist Lowell J. Bean and Mrs. Katherine Siva Saubel, a member of the tribal council of Los Coyote Cahuilla Reservation and herself a noted authority on the traditions and culture of her people (Bean and Saubel, 1972). Apart from its crucial role in boys' initiation rites, which resemble those of the Luisa°, Gabrieleño and other desert and coastal tribes of southern California, the authors note (pp. 61-62) that Datura afforded the puul (shaman) a means of transcending ordinary reality and coming into contact with specific guardian spirits, as well as enabling him to go on magical flights to Otherworlds or transform himself into certain animals, such as the mountain lion or eagle. Such flights and transformations in the Datura trance were a necessary and routine activity of shamans, for such purposes as bringing back information about the Upper- and Underworld, visiting the dead, or retrieving lost or strayed souls.

Datura also played an important role in native medicine. As among the Zuñi and Aztecs, the plant was employed by Cahuilla shamans in the form of a paste or ointment as a highly effective pain killer in setting broken or dislocated bones, alleviating localized pain, and even relieving toothache. Depending on the effect desired, the Indians commonly used the root in a drink, generally smoked the leaves, and crushed both roots and leaves with other parts of the plant and mixed them into a medicinal paste.

At the same time, the authors stress that the Cahuilla are well aware of the very real dangers in using a plant that may cause serious mental disorientation, disorders in locomotor activities, acute cardiac symptoms endangering heart functions, and other severe physiological problems ranging from temporary psychosis to death. Despite their superior knowledge, even some shamans refrained from Datura use, preferring other techniques to achieve contact with the supernatural. All the Cahuilla who discussed Datura with them, Bean and Saubel write (p. 60),

 .  stressed that the plant is unpredictable and warned against its use by the casual experimenter.

No idle warning: in the past few years, the authors note, several young people in southern California have died after experimenting with Datura, and many others have required hospitalization.


*I am indebted to Timothy Knab (personal communication) for drawing my attention to this reference.