Mankind has been getting high for so long, it doesn’t even make sense to ask when homo sapiens “discovered” mind-altering substances. They’ve just always sort of been there, asking to be drunk, eaten, and snuffed, a feature of our development as both a species and a civilization. From residues and fossils, we know that the use of psychoactive plants, seeds and fungi has been a steady feature of our time on this planet, dating back—way back—through humanity’s earliest known records.
The late, great ethno-botanist and philosopher Terrence McKenna has even postulated that psilocybin-containing mushrooms might have spurred the final evolution of the human brain.
Evidence of our favorite prehistoric highs constitutes a global history. Mescaline beans have been found in Peru dating to around 9,000 BC. Throughout the Andes, cultures have been chewing coca leaves for at least that long. We know the Chinese were getting smashed on sweet, rudimentary wine around 7,000 BC, a full thousand years before many Americans believe the world was created as described in the Old Testament. Ancient fossils of cultivated opium plants have been discovered not far from modern-day Rome.
Unlike many modern cultures, most notably our own, these drugs were not banned by the primitive societies that consumed them, but incorporated into their religious and social rituals. Indeed, the use of these drugs may have been central to social bonding and our earliest religious impulses and insights.
Later, during what are considered two of the greatest growth spurts of western civilization—ancient Athens and imperial Rome—drugs continued to be a feature of society. There is evidence supporting the theory that youth in Periclean Athens consumed an LSD-like substance during a famous rite known as the Eleusinian Mysteries, and Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman stoic philosopher-king, was a heavy user of opium.
Let’s take a little tour of the oldest known drugs from around the world.
1. Anadenanthera: The DMT bean
By now, most people have heard of Ayahuasca, the ancient jungle brew derived from vines and leaves still used by shamans in the indigenous cultures of the Amazon rainforest. But Ayahuasca is not the only potent organic cocktail containing psychedelic DMT with a long pedigree in the Americas. Anadenanthera, a kind of bean found in the grasslands of Latin America (and later the Caribbean), was dried and crushed into a potent hallucinogenic ritual snuff during the same ancient timeframe. This snuff appears in creation myths of many cultures, which, like Ayahuasca-based creation myths, often involves some combination of riverside sex, jaguars, snakes and twins.
Magic mushrooms weren’t the only hallucinogen consumed by the people of Eurasia in the centuries before Stalin started throwing their shamans out of helicopters. “Black” henbane, a poisonous ornamental plant, was used as both a proto-painkiller and a very powerful sedative. It was easy to find in the forest, but the person administering the brew had to know what they were doing. Take too much, and you die. Many scholars of Shakespeare believe henbane was the poison murderously administered into the ear of Hamlet’s father.
Why do Halloween decoration witches fly on broomsticks? Very likely, it is because the female shamans of the Middle Ages (later rechristened as “witches”) rubbed long sticks (including brooms) lathered in “flying ointment” into the mucous membranes of their vaginas, allowing them to soar inward to incredible heights.
One of the main ingredients in this hallucinogenic ointment was the plant belladonna, also known as “deadly nightshade.” Poisonous in high doses, morphine was used as an antidote.
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