Our Ancestors Got High

April 12, 2018

The tales we tell — from Homer and Genesis to your friend’s ninth recounting of that epic rave last summer — are rich with drug use. But studies show our ancestors were chewing, brewing and blazing long before they started to record their intoxicated escapades.

Virtually all human societies use mind-altering substances. What’s more, about 90 percent give drug-induced altered states of consciousness a role in their fundamental belief systems, according to a survey of 488 modern societies. And this isn’t new. Many psychoactive plants we consume today, and those that have fallen out of style, date back thousands of years.

A Psychoactive Sampling

Before we made drugs a societal menace, we respected them and used them for healing and spiritual purposes. Psychoactive plants fell under the jurisdiction of shamans, and some scholars believe early religion is rooted in their prophetic hallucinations, though this has been contested. Others wonder whether drugs played a part in the origins of symbolic life and major intellectual breakthroughs.

Use of Peyote, a desert cactus with natural hallucinogens, dates back as far as 5,700 years. It was so indispensable that some Native American groups traveled days or weeks each year to harvest a year’s worth of the holy cactus in the Chihuahuan desert of Mexico and Texas.

In “Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality,” religion correspondent Barbara Hagerty described a peyote ceremony: everyone “sat cross-legged on the floor, motionless, gazing at the flames with sleepy eyes dilated by the mescaline from the sacred herb peyote. Three strapping young men with long black hair moved around the circle, pounding on a water drum and singing an urgent chant.”

Other drugs have an even longer history. In the same region, another hallucinogen called the mescal bean, which was used in a similar way to peyote, has been found in caves and rock shelters extending back to 9,000 years ago. In Peru, the oldest remains of the psychoactive San Pedro cactus date to 6,800-6,200 B.C.

More familiar today is opium —its descendants are heroin and morphine — and it was equally renowned in the antiquity of the Old World. It produces euphoria, pain relief and drowsiness, and it seems to be the most widespread of the ancient drugs, reaching most of Europe by the sixth millennium B.C. Poppy capsules adorn many Eastern Mediterranean artifacts, like figurines and jewelry, highlighting opium’s range of symbolic meanings.

In the South American Andes, coca is the drug of choice, and has perhaps been so for 8,000 years. Chewing the leaves of this plant, from which we now derive cocaine, helps to stave off fatigue, hunger, thirst and altitude sickness. Many indigenous tribes also use it in ritual contexts.

Smoking pipes in Argentina have been dated to as early as 2,100 B.C., and chemical analysis suggests they were used either to smoke tobacco or other hallucinogenic plants. As for marijuana, Neolithic Chinese farmers were growing hemp for various reasons by the fifth millennium B.C., including as a hallucinogen.

And of course, we can’t forget shrooms. Prehistoric Homo sapiens were so enamored of the fantastic fungi that many formed sacred cults around them in Mesoamerica. Small sculptures of human figures crowned with umbrella-like mushrooms are common throughout the region, dating between 500 B.C. and 900 A.D. In Siberia, Finno-Ugrian tribes have likely been aware of fly agaric — the classic image of a magic mushroom, red with white speckles — since “time immemorial.”

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