Ancient relief carving depicting drug use

Archaeological study explores drug-taking and altered states in prehistory


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


My European ancestors used Amanita Mascaria to connect with the divine. They would feed the Mushroom to their deer, which they herded before cows came into fashion. The village Shaman (priest) would then collect urine from the deer as the deer had metabolised out the uncomforatble toxins and left the good stuff. The Shaman would then hold a collective session on Saturdays at the local pub offering a sip or so of the hallucinogen. Today they still go to the pub and get pissed, an ancient reflection harking back to the good old days before money making alcohol was switched into replace a perfectly good, naturally occuring, harmeless, drug. 

Nature has supplied us with many, many different types of plant which can be utilised for much the same purpose and differing purposes.

I now believe that they were put here for exactly this reason No naturally occuring drug can harm you (depending on the dosage) only man made drugs are dangerous. 





I don't agree Guillaumé. Plants and animals don't have or make these 'drugs' to teach us stuff. They have and make these substances to harm or manipulate their natural enemies or prey.
When we take these substances we can experience things that we otherwise never would have experienced and that sometimes helps creativity and seeing things in a new perspective. And sometimes we can use these substances to get better when were sick. But don't think the things you see when you're on these drugs are perse a reality or are important by themselves.
I have consumed a number of different types of magic mushrooms and it was sometimes great and fun. But all the sensations you can experience (flying, experiencing eternal life, seeing other beings, and so on and so on) are just ways of the plant or animal to manipulate their natural enemies or prey.
Be critical!!! Be rational!!!

It would be a stretch to say the effects produced by many of these plants, which sometimes require significant preparation to isolate the active compounds, can be best explained as a natural defense.  There is a lot of cooperation in nature as well.  Everything isn't tooth and claw, and when science doesn't have the slightest clue how to explain consciousness, let alone the effects these substances have on it, it seems overly reductionist to assume they arose independently of what we would see as their purpose.  Even if that is what science sez (while being forbidden from research).

I totally agree with you Rizzman everything isn't tooth and claw. There are thousands of examples of symbiosis; between humans and other living beings as well. And you're right about us not yet understanding exactly what consciousness is.
But that's not an excuse for not trying to always be rational and critical. I've seen too many people who lost contact with reality. For instance: thinking everything is a conspiracy. (Drugs don't cause such thinking but it often helps... ;) ). Or more or less living a 'shamanic' lifestyle.
I think we must be very critical about specific substances having or not having specific "purpose(s)".
We must be aware that some of these substances (short or long term) are very dangerous as well.

As soon as I saw the title of this article, I knew one of the comments would be ‘natural drugs are great, we should get stoned for ah erm SPIRITUAL purposes (yeah that’s the ticket, pass me the Doritos). This is not to say I have any problem with mind altering drugs; but there’s always someone willing to say that their own pleasurable behavior is somehow the ‘right’ or ‘natural’ way to be.

Greyface lives!


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