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

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

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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.


The "War on Drugs" is based on nothing but shameful lies and is an expensive, dismal failure.

It has taken me quite a few years to agree with you.
It (War on Drugs) was never serious. I believe that it was a way to divert funds for other criminal activities by our government. Like the gas tax, social sec., Dept. of Comm and Ag. all are covers for theft from the tax payer. When it comes to the Departments only a part of the actual budget is stolen, but paychecks / expense accounts / and so on are all taken under false pretense.

"The "War on Drugs" is based on nothing but ..."

Oh, nobody profits from lies. I'd reconsider that statement. The drug war is there, only because some party or parties profits hugely from it. There are no other rational reasons.

Not one of these drugs, in their natural state, is addictive. Think of the people you know who are ‘addicted’ and you will (mostly) find that they are addicted to Pharmaceutical drugs.


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


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