A recent paper published in Scientific Reports has unveiled groundbreaking findings regarding ancient psychedelic drug use in Europe. Through an analysis of human hair strands found at a burial site in Menorca, Spain, researchers have uncovered direct evidence of hallucinogenic plant-derived drugs being used in ancient civilisations for ritualistic purposes.
Previous evidence of prehistoric psychedelic drug use in Europe has been largely indirect, researchers say, relying on the detection of opium alkaloids in containers from the Bronze Age, the discovery of remains of drug plants in ritualistic contexts, and the depiction of drug plants in ancient art.
However, the recent study, led by Elisa Guerra-Doce, an archaeology professor at the University of Valladolid in Spain, took a new approach by examining hair strands from the ancient burial site Es Càrritx cave in Menorca, dating back approximately 3,000 years ago.
But what makes this study particularly significant is the discovery that only hair strands from specific individuals were dyed red, placed in elaborately decorated wooden and horn containers adorned with concentric circles, and moved to a separate sealed chamber within the cave. Using advanced techniques such as Ultra-High Performance Liquid Chromatography and High-Resolution Mass Spectroscopy, the researchers detected the presence of alkaloids, including atropine, scopolamine, and ephedrine, in the hair samples.
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Atropine and scopolamine are naturally found in the nightshade plant family and can induce delirium, hallucinations, and altered sensory perception, while ephedrine is a stimulant derived from certain species of shrubs and pines, known to increase excitement, alertness, and physical activity. The researchers detected scopolamine, ephedrine, and atropine in three replicated hair samples.
Ancient psychedelic practices
The authors speculate that the presence of these alkaloids may have been due to the consumption of nightshade plants such as mandrake (Mandragora autumnalis), henbane (Hyoscyamus albus), or thorn apple (Datura stramonium), as well as joint pine (Ephedra fragilis). These drug plants may have been used as part of ritual ceremonies performed by a shaman.
The concentric circles on the wooden containers have been interpreted by the researchers as possibly representing eyes and symbolising inner visions related to altered states of consciousness induced by the consumption of these hallucinogenic substances. Furthermore, the sealing of the wooden containers in the cave chamber around 2,800 years ago may indicate a deliberate effort to preserve these ancient traditions in the face of changing cultural practices.
This study provides unprecedented direct evidence of ancient drug use in Europe, shedding new light on the ritualistic and ceremonial use of hallucinogenic plants in ancient civilisations. The analysis of human hair strands from the Menorcan burial site offers valuable insights into the beliefs and practices of ancient cultures, deepening our understanding of human history and the use of psychoactive substances in diverse societies throughout the ages.
Although these latest findings are incredible, they only add to the wave of recent archaeological discoveries made by a range of scientists, looking to uncover the historical secrets of humanity’s psychedelic drug use.
These latest findings are among many studies published detailing ancient psychedelic use across the world. Another notable study published in the journal PNAS in 2019 revealed evidence of ancient psychedelic use in South America.
Researchers conducted chemical analysis on pottery vessels from a site in the Andean highlands of Bolivia, dating back to approximately 500 BC, and found traces of bufotenin, or 5-MeO-DMT, a potent psychoactive compound found in certain plants and secretions of animals such as the Colorado River toad.
Another recent study published in the Journal of Antibiotics focused on the use of psilocybin-containing mushrooms in ancient Mayan cultures. The researchers analysed ceramic vessels from a cave site in Guatemala, dating back to around 350 BC, and identified traces of psilocybin, the psychoactive compound found in magic mushrooms.
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This provides evidence that the Mayans used psychedelic mushrooms in their rituals and suggests a long-standing tradition of mushroom use in Mayan societies.
As our understanding of ancient drug use continues to evolve, these findings challenge our perceptions of ancient civilisations and highlight the rich cultural diversity and complexity of human history. The study of ancient psychedelic practices not only deepens our understanding of human culture and spirituality but also offers intriguing insights into the human mind and its enduring fascination with altered states of consciousness.