Island Near Spain Reveals Evidence of Hallucinogenic Use in 1,000 BC
A new study has produced evidence that ancient peoples living on a Mediterranean island off the coast Spain nearly 3,000 years ago were regularly consuming hallucinogenic drugs obtained from plants. Scientists examined hair samples removed from a Bronze Age burial site on the island of Menorca, and were quite excited to find that these strands of hair contained traces of psychoactive ingredients. This is the first confirmed proof that ancient inhabitants of Spain’s Balearic Island chain were using mind-altering substances, which may have been taken during religious ceremonies as a way to induced altered states of consciousness and perception.
- Trophy Head Shows Child Victim Consumed Psychedelic San Pedro in Peru
- Paraphernalia Discovered in Bolivian Cave Shows Ancient Ayahuasca Use
As reported in the latest edition of Scientific Reports , a group of scientists from Spain, led by Valladolid University professor of archaeology and prehistory Elisa Guerra Doce, carefully analyzed strands of human hair removed from Menorca’s Es Càrritx cave, to gather data about their chemical makeup. The researchers used Ultra-High Performance Liquid Chromatography and High-Resolution Mass Spectroscopy to test for a variety of chemicals in the hair strands, and found psychoactive ingredients in three of them.
Detail of hair strands from the study. (ASOME-Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona/ Nature)
The alkaloids they discovered were atropine and scopolamine, which come from nightshade plants, and ephedrine, a stimulant that can be extracted from a few species of pine trees and shrubs. The chemicals from the nightshade plants are known to induce hallucinations and alterations in perception , while ephedrine boosts energy levels and increases alertness.
Studying the Miraculously Preserved Human Hair of Menorca
Es Càrritx cave was first occupied by humans in approximately 1,600 BC. Among its many wonders, it featured a vast burial chamber that had remained in use up until 800 BC.
Normally, hair from skeletons buried so long ago would not have been preserved. But in this instance strands of hair from some individuals were dyed red, put inside wooden containers and stored in a separate sealed chamber found further back in the cave. Testing has shown that this well-preserved hair, which is believed to have been removed from the heads of shamans or medicine men, is about 3,000 years old.
Inner chamber of Es Càrritx cave. (ASOME-Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona/ Nature)
Based on their knowledge of the types of plants that would have been on the island of Menorca in 1,000 BC, Guerra-Doce and her colleagues know the people living there would have had no trouble finding sources for hallucinogens. The psychoactive alkaloids could have entered their bodies following their consumption of extracts from a bush known as the joint pine, and from chemicals taken from nightshade plants like the mandrake, henbane and thorn apple.
- Magic Flowers of U.S. Dream Trippers Found at California’s Pinwheel Cave
- Getting Buzzed: The History of Hallucinogenic Mad Honey
The researchers speculate that the plants or their extracts would have been consumed during rituals, specifically those organized by shamans who specialized in the exploration of altered states of mind. It was believed that shamans could visit different dimensions, including those occupied by deceased spirits, while under the influence of mind-altering substances. With information gathered in these distant dimensions the shamans would have been able to diagnose illnesses and learn how to cure them, and possibly see into the future as well—or so they would have claimed.
Interestingly, there were concentric circles on the wooden containers that held the dyed strands of hair. The scientists think these may have been meant to depict eyes, and could have referred to the unique type of inner vision shamans experienced while under the influence of hallucinogens. They speculate that the wooden containers were essentially created as time capsules, as a way to preserve the record of certain cultural or metaphysical traditions that were abandoned 2,800 years ago. They were sealed in a deep cave chamber to ensure their unconventional contents (the dyed hair of shamans) would be preserved, thus honoring the activities of those who served as healers and holy men in their ancient communities.
Left; Wooden bowl and spoon found in the hoard with the human hair containers. Right; Wooden comb found in the hoard with the human hair containers. (Peter Witte, ASOME-Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona/ Nature)
Prehistoric Travelers in the Shamanic Realms
The evidence of prehistoric hallucinogenic use uncovered in this latest study is consistent with what has been discovered at many other ancient sites around the world.
Human consumption of drug plants is a long-standing tradition,” the study authors wrote in their Scientific Reports paper. “By combining many different fields of study (archaeology, anthropology, chemistry, pharmacology, ethnobotany, and iconography, among others) it has been possible to trace back this habit to prehistoric times in Eurasia, North America and South America.”
Fortunately, traces of psychoactive alkaloids can sometimes be preserved for several millennia. This has helped archaeologists and anthropologists identify many prehistoric cultures that were using hallucinogenic drugs, establishing just how popular and widespread this practice has been throughout human history.
In their study, the researchers listed many discoveries that have revealed the ubiquitous pattern of hallucinogenic plant use over the millennia. For example, opium alkaloids have been found in Late Bronze Age (1,400 to 1,200 BC) containers recovered from archaeological sites in the eastern Mediterranean. They’ve similarly been found in jugs, mugs and bowls unearthed in Iberia (modern-day Spain and Portugal) dating to the Copper Age , Bronze Age and Iron Age , covering the period of more than 3,000 years up to the first century BC.
In the Americas, multiple types of hallucinogens have been found in artifacts manufactured in pre-Hispanic times. In China the psychoactive ingredients in cannabis have been discovered inside wooden boxes, dating back to the country’s prehistoric era.
Organic remains that contain psychoactive alkaloids have been unearthed more rarely, but they have been discovered from time to time. Hair samples taken from mummified bodies linked to ancient Mesoamerican cultures have been found to contain psychoactive alkaloids, and they’ve also been detected in prehistoric human bones excavated in China. In Vietnam alkaloids from the Areca nut have been found in dental enamel of individuals who lived during the Iron Age. And predating other finds on the Iberian Peninsula, bones removed from ancient mines in Gavá have produced evidence of hallucinogenic consumption dating to the Late Neolithic period (4,500 to 3,250 BC).
The use of hallucinogenic substances likely goes back tens of thousands of years, into the Paleolithic period. But hard evidence that shows exactly when and how mind-altering psychoactive chemicals were being consumed is rare, and that’s why the discovery of the sealed wooden boxes with the contaminated hair strands in the cave on Menorca is so important. The researchers involved in this new study are convinced that the boxes were made to preserve a kind of record of ancient ceremonial practices, with the dyed hair strands serving as artifacts directly linked to the shamans who were in charge of communications with other realms.
Top image: Artist’s impression of the dyeing scene in the funerary chamber. Source: Oriol Garcia i Quera, ASOME-Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona/ Nature
By Nathan Falde