Scientists have found direct evidence that our ancestors were using hallucinogenic substances in the Bronze Age. It is the earliest direct evidence of humans consuming mind-altering drugs discovered in Europe.
Previous research from other parts of the world has shown evidence of direct drug use in our ancestors, although in Europe the evidence so far has been indirect, such as finding traces of opium in vessels thought to be used in the preparation of plants.
Now, in a study published on the 6th of April in Nature, scientists show how through the use of hair analysis, humans were using plants to get high thousands of years ago.
Around 3000 years ago, in a cave high up on a cliffside on the Balearic island of Menorca named Es Càrritx burials of some of the very first inhabitants were taking place.
The cave was discovered in 1995, and it is thought to have been in use as a burial site during the period between 1600 BCE and 800 BCE. Previous studies carried out indicate that around 200 individuals were laid to rest there, men, women and children.
During the final 300 years of the cave’s use, a post-mortem ritual took place where strands of hair were cut from the head, died red using native plants and placed into wooden boxes.
These boxes were found in a separate chamber at the rear of the cave and were decorated in detailed concentric circle patterns. The boxes were closed with string, and since 800 BCE, the chamber has been sealed.
A team of archaeologists, led by Prof Elisa Guerra-Doce from the University of Valladolid seized on this unique opportunity to analyse the hair samples for use of drugs.
Using forensic technology the team found traces of the alkaloids atropine, scopolamine and ephedrine, indicating that the people buried there not only used drugs that would have changed their perception of reality but also shows that they had extensive knowledge of the native plants growing around them.
Prof Elisa Guerra-Doce wrote in the study, “Atropine and scopolamine are naturally found in the nightshade plant family and can induce delirium, hallucinations and altered sensory perception. Ephedrine is a stimulant derived from certain species of shrubs and pines, which can increase excitement, alertness and physical activity.”
The study notes that some of the hallucinogenic alkaloid-containing plants are native to Menorca, “The flora native to Menorca includes the psychoactive species Datura stramonium, Hyoscyamus albus and Mandragora automnalis which contain the tropane derivatives atropine and scopolamine, Ephedra fragilis which contains the phenylethylamine derivative ephedrine, and Papaver somniferum which contains a variety of benzylisoquinoline alkaloids, morphine and papaverine among them.”
It is thought that the specialist knowledge required to collect prepare and administer these plant substances would have been held by people in their community that we now call shamans.
Shamans could have given other people in the community drugs as part of a ritualist ceremony, possibly as part of a funeral or birth celebrations. It is not thought the drugs were used to alleviate pain, “Interestingly, the psychoactive substances detected in this study are not suitable for alleviating the pain involved in severe palaeopathological conditions attested in the population buried in the cave of Es Càrritx, such as periapical abscesses, severe caries, and arthropathies,”
Previous research from other parts of the world has shown evidence of direct drug use in our ancestors. However, this is the first direct evidence found in Europe.