Drugs in Ancient Cultures: A History of Drug Use and Effects

Drugs in Ancient Cultures: A History of Drug Use and Effects

(Read the article on one page)

The battle against drugs and drug usage rages on today and for good reason. However, with the near constant limelight that the ‘drug war’ receives today, it can seem like the most common drugs have only just been discovered. Although the main production process of these drugs is often carried out by farmers in some far flung corners of the world, the reality is that most modern drugs were discovered many millennia ago.

Archaeological evidence shows that humans were taking opium and ‘magic’ mushrooms as far back as 10,000 years ago. Some scholars even believe that a few notable Greeks, like Pythagoras, couldn’t have come up with their genius theories and philosophies without some form of drug use.  Texts from ancient history suggest there may be truth in these claims. This article focuses on the various drugs used in ancient culture, as well as highlighting the importance of modern day drug rehabilitation, from state funded rehab centers to luxury rehab centers .

1. Harmal

Harmal (Images via Liza Knox.)

Harmal was commonly used by West Indian , Iranian and Andean cultures.  Interestingly, it was recently discovered in the hair of an adult male mummy and a mummified one-year-old baby in Northern Chile. The older male was buried with snuffing trays and pipes which may have been used to consume the drug. The remains are believed to be from 800 to 1200 AD.

Harmal is a flowering plant that can be converted to the chemical Harmine through a distillation process. The chemical works as a strong antidepressant and has the ability to magnify the effects of other anti-depressants.  It can also be used in the treatment of inflammation and fever. Harmal seeds are available in most Iranian and Middle Eastern grocery stores.

2. Cannabis

Cannabis (Images via Liza Knox.)

The wider world is certainly no stranger to this drug, with thousands of cannabis legalization debates taking place across the globe. However, it has been in use for thousands of years and is believed to have been used in ancient Central and South Asia.  A 2,7000-year-old grave in western china exhibits the most recent evidence of the drug being used as a psychoactive substance in ancient times; around 789 grams, or 1.7 pounds of the substance was found in the shaman’s grave. 

Cannabis was cultivated in the past for its hemp fiber but it has also been used as a meditation aid and painkiller by Sikhs for generations.  Although cannabis is still illegal in the majority of places, there are instances of medical legalization due to its use as treatment of glaucoma and increasing the body’s appetite.

3. Nutmeg

Nutmeg (Images via Liza Knox.)

Ancient Indian and Asian cultures were prone to using Nutmeg recreationally.  While it is mostly regarded as a cooking ingredient today, nutmeg is useful in the treatment of asthma and heart complaints and also serves as a sedative. Many ancient cultures believed that the spice had special or magical powers.

Regular water mixed with nutmeg has also been used as substitute for decades, and was even used by Malcolm X.  Overdose on nutmeg has very strong side effects though, so it’s worth remembering that moderation is key, especially as you can find nutmeg in any local spice store or supermarket.

4. Coca Leaf

Coca Leaf (Images via Liza Knox.)

Coca leaf was chewed and brewed into tea for consumption by the Mayans due to its powerful stimulating effects. This was long before the idea of distilling the plant into a strong cup of coffee had been conceived. The drug is very potent: a mere 100 grams of coca plant leaves contain the daily recommended intake for vitamins, iron, phosphorous, calcium and iron.  Coca leaf can be found in Medellin and other parts of Southern America.

5. Psilocybin

Psilocybin (Images via Liza Knox.)

Psilocybin was used by Ancient people in the Saharan Desert as well as throughout Central and South American cultures.  Also known as ‘magic mushrooms’, they have been found in North African murals dated anywhere from 9000 to 7000 BC. Eating magic mushrooms is known to cause nausea and hallucinations, which were warmly embraced by ancient users as they believed it offered them access to higher levels of intelligence. It is widely believed by drug history students that the hallucinations caused by magic mushrooms led to some of the most famous religious and cultural evolutions of our entire species.

There are different varieties of mushroom all around the world, but one quick way users obtain them today is to grow it on cattle dung.  Some shops in the Netherlands and some parts of Belgium have been known to sell magic mushrooms as well.


"Rumors still circulate about DuPont’s possible role in the prohibition of hemp and cannabis, due to its breakthrough patent of nylon and a process for using wood pulp to manufacture paper in 1937. While both products could facilely be replaced by hemp, which arguably would have severely limited DuPont’s massive profits, those rumors have yet to be either summarily proven — or thoroughly debunked." http://therundownlive.com/the-illuminati-were-amateurs-the-facts-show-th...

No matter the era, the century or the nation .. there never has been a war on drugs, rather a drug war on the competition..

Gord, your tentative answer is (most) probably the correct one.

 “Could it be that the state of awareness that these substances produce are deemed a threat to the powers that be?

What is interesting is that through out the world where ever there are plants and or substances that today we refer to as hallucinogens or mind alternating, we humans have used them. For thousands of years.

In areas where these substances did not grow they where imported into the region and or various techniques where developed that produced the same result.

Whether using substances or techniques to produced an altered state, a perception an awareness that can be attended, the question is why?

As the article made mention, some believe that the use of these various substances played a role in the development of various religions, faiths or traditions. There is also a fringe school of thought that the ingestion of these substances plays a role in developing what we refer to today as ‘consciousness’.

It is also interesting that all these substances that can produce these various states of altered consciousness are deemed illegal in most countries. Where as substances that dampen the mind are legal. Why?

Could it be that the state of awareness that these substances produce are deemed a threat to the powers that be?

Please edit this to mention the shaman Mummy found in Western China with the cannabis is Caucasian and not Chinese.


Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Inside one of the tunnels under Rome, Italy.
Few visitors recognize that there is a forgotten world below the Roman Colosseum and Forum. The ancient maze of tunnels and quarries date back to the very beginning of this famous city. Locals, on the other hand, remember the existence of the underground pathways every time one of the ancient tunnels collapses, damaging the structures above. Hundreds of buildings and streets have fallen victim to the decaying tunnels.

Myths & Legends

The Smelliest Women of Ancient Greece: Jason and the Argonauts Get Fragrant
We all know Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty, made sure that she was worshipped by punishing those who ignored her altars. One brief appearance of this wrath in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts turned into a particularly fragrant episode.

Ancient Places

Inside one of the tunnels under Valetta, Malta.
Hordes of tourists visit the Mediterranean island of Malta each year to enjoy the above ground attractions the country has to offer such as breath-taking sandy beaches, historical buildings, and traditional cuisine. Yet, there is also a subterranean world hidden beneath the island’s surface. These are the rumored secret tunnels of Malta.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article