Ancient relief carving depicting drug use

Archaeological study explores drug-taking and altered states in prehistory

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Neanderthals on speed 60,000 years ago; Paleolithic art inspired by psilocybin or Amanita muscaria mushroom trips; and alcohol-fueled religious worship all over the world down through the ages – these are just some of the drug-taking behaviors reported in a new research paper which looked at decades of archaeological evidence to see how prevalent the use of psychoactive substances and other reality-bending practices was in prehistory. The paper also explores the link between religion and hallucinogens, stimulants, alcoholic beverages and other substances.

Elisa Guerra-Doce, an archaeologist at the University of Valladolid in Spain, says that altered states of consciousness were very nearly ubiquitous in societies throughout prehistory and history. An anthropologist who studied 488 human societies published a paper in 1973 that said 437 or 90 percent of them reportedly incorporated altered states of consciousness (ASC) into their fundamental belief systems.

Cohoba, a hallucinogen made of ground tree seeds, was used by Taino shamans. Users put cohoba powder on a carved pedestal and inhaled through the nose via an inhaler like this piece, from between 1000 and 1500 A.D. This carved stone shows a shaman or behique in a trance.

Cohoba, a hallucinogen made of ground tree seeds, was used by Taino shamans. Users put cohoba powder on a carved pedestal and inhaled through the nose via an inhaler like this piece, from between 1000 and 1500 A.D. This carved stone shows a shaman or behique in a trance. (Walters Art Museum photo/ Wikimedia Commons )

Guerra-Doce looked at four types of archaeological evidence to do her study of altered states among prehistoric societies:

  • Fossils of burned, waterlogged or desiccated leaves, seeds, fruits or wood of psychoactive plants
  • Psychoactive alkaloids in skeletal remains and artifacts
  • Residues of alcoholic beverages
  • Depictions of drinking scenes or mood-altering plants inspired by inspired by altered states of consciousness

She found chemical residue from and parts of many psychoactive plant in levels of dwellings from various eras and in artifacts and human remains from thousands of years ago. People used alcoholic beverages nearly everywhere for thousands of years, mildly stimulating betel leaves in Asia as far back as 13,000 B.C., hallucinogens derived from the San Pedro cactus in the Andes as far back as 10,600 years, hallucinogenic mescal beans in Texas and northern Mexico 11,000 years ago, and peyote from between 9,000 and 5,600 years ago.


The Greek god of wine, Dionysus, crosses the sea in his dolphin boat with grape vines above the sail in a bowl from 530 B.C. by Exsekias.

The Greek god of wine, Dionysus, crosses the sea in his dolphin boat with grape vines above the sail in a bowl from 530 B.C. by Exsekias. ( Carole Raddato photo/Wikimedia Commons )

People also apparently got high on opium as the poppy was domesticated in the western Mediterranean 8,000 years ago; the mildly stimulating (among other benefits) coca leaves for tea and chewing in South America from at least 6,000 B.C.; cannabis (marijuana) in central Asia 7,000 years ago and hallucinogenic nightshade all over the world as long ago as 5,000 years. There were tobacco in the New World 4,000 years ago, hallucinogenic yopo snuff from the New World more than 4,000 years ago, and hallucinogenic mushrooms from various places and times around the world.

Peyote plant

Peyote plant (Frank Vincentz photo/ Wikimedia Commons )

Guerra-Doce states in her report:

Ethnographic studies have long been exploring the place of fermented beverages (beer, fruit wines, rice wine, mead, koumiss, pulque, chicha, among many others) and psychoactive plants, not only hallucinogenic but also narcotic and stimulant (peyote cactus, morning glories seeds, sacred mushrooms, ayahuasca or yaje brew, cohoba, Virola snuffs, coca, tobacco, mescal beans, San Pedro cactus, iboga, betel, kat, pituri, cannabis, nightshade plants, opium poppy, and ephedra, just to offer a few examples) within traditional societies in every corner of the planet, above all in the Americas.

Published in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness and Culture, Guerra-Doce’s article is titled 'Psychoactive Substances in Prehistoric Times: Examining the Archaeological Evidence ' (PDF link). While the article focuses on entheogens, or plants and alcoholic beverages that 'generate the divine within,' it also refers to other practices that people used to alter their reality, including auditory stimulation, exposure to extreme temperatures, food restrictions, breathing techniques, extreme physical exercise, or meditation.

Featured image: Ancient relief carving depicting drug use (Michael Bradley)

By Mark Miller


This theory resonated with me as well.  McKenna also described the chemical structure of psilocybin as being somewhat mysterious in composition (I’m no chemist so I’m taking his word for it), and suggested the possibility it originated elsewhere in the universe.

I am surprised no one has mentioned the “Stoned Ape Theory” as proposed by Terrance Mckenna. The idea is, that the use of psychdellic mushrooms by our pre-homosapian ancestors may have led to the massive increase in brain capacity that then in turn led to the evolution of the human species. Fascinating stuff.

riparianfrstlvr's picture

Cannibis was mentioned, there are only a few types that i can actually find. Illegal pot, Medical Cannibis, Recreational Cannibis, and Free Medical Cannibis. Since the beginning of time, up to about 50 years ago, do you know what people called "Organic Food?" "FOOOOD!" just sayin'


johnblack's picture

Absolutely right John and Rizzman. In nature there is everything that we need for our well being. Next to the poision there is always the antidote. You can hardly consider any of these as an act of randomness ...

What Guillaume says about the plants giving us a gift comes from the Shamanic mindset, where everything is animate and intelligent. It is also true that nature has many defence mechanisms, the brightly colored poison arrow frogs, for instance. Here, you have nature warning its victim first with coloration, backed up by poison. This example also shows how mankind utilizes what is put before him in order to get what he wants. The poison on the frogs' skin was not intended for the tip of a hunters' arrow but man has adopted it for his purpose. I think we come accross things by chance or otherwise, make a connection and adopt it. That is OUR magic. So nature does give us gifts, provided we have the ability to recognize them as such. The use of intoxicants is at the core of human existence, so much so that it is thought that the domestication of grain, which marked when we adopted agriculture as a primary life style, was not to make bread  but rather to brew beer!




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