All  
The Stoned Ape theory proposes magic mushrooms helped the Homo erectus evolve quickly.

The Stoned Ape Theory and the Dawn of Human Consciousness: Did Our Prehistoric Ancestors Evolve by Getting High?

Print

The origins of behavioral modernity and what exactly makes us human are topics which have fascinated people for hundreds of years. There is a plethora of theories as to which archaic human ancestor first displayed traits that set them aside from other apes, and the reasons that this behavior may have evolved.

One question that people have tried to find an explanation for is how humans evolved from our Homo erectus forebears, doubling our brain size within a span of about 200,000 years – which in evolutionary terms is the blink of an eye.

Terence McKenna – a renowned mystic and psychonaut – broke the traditional mold when he presented his theory of how humans advanced so quickly in such a short space of time. The theory, which is known as the ‘stoned ape’ theory looks at the question from outside the box. But is it really as ridiculous as some people believe, or is it possible McKenna was on to something?

Terence McKenna during a panel discussion at the 1999 AllChemical Arts Conference, held at Kona, Hawaii. (Jon Hanna/CC BY SA 3.0)

Terence McKenna during a panel discussion at the 1999 AllChemical Arts Conference, held at Kona, Hawaii. (Jon Hanna/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

What is the Stoned Ape Theory?

The Stoned Ape Theory presented by McKenna proposes that the evolutionary leap between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens was a result of a surprising addition to the human diet Psilocybe cubensis (magic mushrooms).

It sounds outlandish at first – how could eating mushrooms possibly make such a huge difference that Homo erectus doubled its brain size? McKenna based the theory on research conducted in the 1960s by Roland Fischer, a scientist who conducted a lot of research on the effects of psychedelic drugs .

He believed that Homo erectus were forced to turn to new food sources, including magic mushrooms, as the climate in Africa changed. The effects of the mushrooms meant that the thought processes of Homo erectus rapidly reorganized.

Psilocybe Cubensis. (Rohan523/CC BY SA 3.0)

Psilocybe Cubensis. (Rohan523/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Stoned Apes

The Stoned Ape theory argues that the effects of magic mushrooms played a pivotal role in the evolution of the species. Increased clarity of vision would make hunting easier. Increased sexual desire would mean they were more prolific.

McKenna also notes the effects of magic mushrooms on modern humans – stimulating the language portion of the brain and inducing religious experiences would have opened the path towards behavioral modernity and if Homo erectus had similar experiences he calls them an “evolutionary catalyst”.

A reconstruction of a Homo erectus, exhibit at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany. (CC BY SA 2.5)

A reconstruction of a Homo erectus, exhibit at the Westfälisches Landesmuseum, Herne, Germany. ( CC BY SA 2.5 )

Sceptics of the Stoned Ape Theory

With a theory as outlandish as the Stoned Ape theory, it is unsurprising that there has been a lot of skepticism. One of the issues raised against the theory is a purely practical one – magic mushrooms don’t grow in Africa. People who believe strongly in the theory could argue that we don’t have evidence they did not grow in Africa thousands of years ago, but it seems like when the known climate , flora, and fauna are considered our ancestors probably did not encounter magic mushrooms at that time.

Secondly, McKenna either misquoted or misinterpreted Fischer’s research. A pivotal part of the Stoned Ape theory centers on the effects the mushrooms have on clarity of vision, but the research only pointed to improved vision within very specific parameters – and it would not have been in a way that helped improve the odds of a successful hunt. There is also no scientific evidence that magic mushrooms have an effect on sexual desire.

Psilocybe cubensis from Coyopolan, Veracruz, Mexico. (Alan Rockefeller/CC BY SA 3.0)

Psilocybe cubensis from Coyopolan, Veracruz, Mexico. (Alan Rockefeller/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

There are a number of inaccuracies in McKenna’s research into human evolution – some of the dates he gives for migration are wrong by more than 100,000 years. This makes it unlikely that his picture of human ancestors being forced to source new foods in changing climates is accurate.

Finally, the effects of magic mushrooms are temporary. Any major breakthroughs in behavior or thought process would not have lasted longer than any other effects of the mushrooms.

The theory certainly captures the imagination and its proponents believe staunchly in the Stoned Ape hypothesis, but the data and further research in this case points to the theory being invalid. But whether they agree with the hypothesis or not, one thing that most of the discussions about the hypothesis does agree on is that McKenna seems to have had much fun conducting the research.

Top Image: The Stoned Ape theory proposes magic mushrooms helped the Homo erectus evolve quickly. Source: INVERSE

By Sarah P Young

References

Lucas, P. 2018. Is there any true and scientific legitimacy to the “stoned ape hypothesis” explaining the “origin of life”? Is scepticism perhaps essential about this? Available at: https://www.quora.com/Is-there-any-true-and-scientific-legitimacy-to-the-Stoned-ape-hypothesis-explaining-the-origin-of-life-Is-skepticism-perhaps-essential-about-this

Meehan, M 2017. Does the ‘stoned ape’ theory explain human evolution? Available at: https://hightimes.com/news/does-the-stoned-ape-theory-explain-human-evolution/

Olsen, O. 2014. The Stoned Ape Hypothesis: A Contemporary Reappraisal in the Light of New Evidence. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/22060350/The_Stoned_Ape_Hypothesis_A_Contemporary_Reappraisal

Psilocybin Technology. 2018. The Stoned Ape Hypothesis Explained by Paul Stamets. Available at: https://psilocybintechnology.com/the-stoned-ape-hypothesis-explained-by-paul-stamets/

Seaburn, P. 2017. The Return of the Stoned Ape Theory of Evolution. Available at: https://mysteriousuniverse.org/2017/07/the-return-of-the-stoned-ape-theory-of-evolution/

Sloat, S. 2017. The ‘Stoned Ape ‘Theory Might Explain Our Extraordinary Evolution. Available at: https://www.inverse.com/article/34186-stoned-ape-hypothesis

Taileaters. Date unknown. The Stoned Ape Theory: A Novel Hypothesis for the Evolution of Humans. Available at: https://taileaters.com/psychedelics/psilocybin/stoned-ape-theory/

Comments

"Finally, the effects of magic mushrooms are temporary. Any major breakthroughs in behavior or thought process would not have lasted longer than any other effects of the mushrooms." Tell that to Dr. Paul Stamets whose chronic stuttering ceased completely after one high dose mushroom trip. www.fungi.com

Sorry, but more likely, the Bills & Teds of the ape world probably went extinct because nobody hunted and gathered for them while they got stoned. It's hard to believe the lengths some will go to deny that we are degenerating, not evolving. We are the half-apes compared to the first men.

What about the Ibogaine root? The usage is past down from antiquity .

Well, Sarah, I'm sorry but your skepticism needs some updating as a matter of fact. First of all, psychedelic mushrooms (Psilocybe, Panaeolus sp.) are found in South Africa (and logic dictates those are not restrained to this country), and have been found and used as well during those happy days when the Sahara was green. Have you ever heard about the drawing from Neolithic age in Algerian tassili, depicting "mushroom being" and the famous "mushroom man" ?
As about the effect of muhsrroms being temporary, well, pharmacologically speaking, yes, but mushroom work well "beyond the flesh" and the changes they bring can be life long. Once the eyes are opened, they stay open! :)

I am not sure whether mushrooms influenced development of early homo sapiens, but they are without a doubt part of human culture and its mystical/religious behaviour. Magic mushrooms were depicted on several artworks of prehistoric or ancient civilisations, for example in wall paintings from Spain or Algeria.Generally all mind altering substances starting with alcoholic beverages such as beer or wine up to more profound such as mysterious soma, magic mushrooms, cannabis or Morning Glory seeds had undeniable influence on human behaviour, culture, religion and art.

One more point would be that effects of magic mushrooms don't end with sobering up. The experience the individual carry on is long lasting and in many cases life changing. The best example would be terminally ill patients who were given a dose of psilocybin and confirmed they reduction in fear of death and improved quality of life for at least 6 months.

Pages

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.

Next article