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Did Psilocybin Mushrooms Lead to Human Language?

By Chris Rhine

Did Psilocybin Mushrooms Lead to Human Language?

One of the largest questions among the scientific community today is: How did the human brain size triple in only a million and a half years? This significant change propelled our early primordial ancestors into the intelligent, self-reflexive beings we are today—and nobody knows why.

The famous lecturer and frontrunner to cannabis and psychedelia use, Terence McKenna (RIP), theorized a solution to this question: the Stoned Ape Theory. In general, he rationalizes man’s relationship to psilocybin mushrooms “enhanced our information processing activity, or environmental sensitivity, and thus contributed to the sudden expansion of the human brain size.” In his controversial 1992 book Food of the Gods, McKenna insists, “Hallucinogens acted as catalysts in the development of imagination, fueling the creation of internal stratagems and hopes that may well have synergized the emergence of language and religion.”

The book received an immediate “pseudoscience” label from the scientific community along with snobbish book reviews that sought to diminish the theories with negative connotations resonant of older, ignorant notions of cannabis and psychedelia users, thus diminishing any examination by reputable professionals. Nonetheless, McKenna’s theory caught steam after more advanced archaeology and computerization appeared in the new millennium.

To start with human language, one must understand the principle idea of semiology: the sign. A century ago in a series of lectures at the University of Geneva, Ferdinand de Saussure introduced his students to linguistics, the science of language. Fundamental to linguistics, the sign is the arbitrary “link between signal and signification,” commonly regarded as the signifier (sound pattern) and signified (concept in reality), respectively. Together, they make up human language by giving material objects a corresponding word.

How is it that early humans began assigning sound patterns to their surroundings? What evolutionary advantage did language give them?

McKenna’s theory, to summarize, begins in the grasslands of North Africa where early hominids experimenting with different plants stumbled upon and continued to ingest psilocybin mushrooms after realizing their enhanced effects on the body. Cause and effect became the first revelation to our primordial ancestors, which increased their mental maturity and primitive need to explain the effects to others through sound patterns with meaning.

Recent studies show that our primate cousins ingest certain plants that are more beneficial to their health than their taste buds; the term for such being zoopharmacognosy. In a 2001 article titled “Self-Medicative Behavior in the African Great Apes,” Michael A. Huffman theorizes “a major turning point in the evolution of medicine is likely to have been the advent of language in early humans, which enabled people to share and pass on detailed experiences about plant properties and their effects against disease.”

McKenna explains the three dosage levels of psilocybin mushrooms produced different effects: The smaller dose increases visual acuity (good for hunting), the medium dose increases sexual interest by stroking the central nervous system and the larger dose—where space-time ceases to exist—sends the human into a deeply meditative, inward trance to expand their knowledge (maybe the first religious experience, which gradually expanded into how religions are practiced today).

The last dosage level, as the theory goes, produces glossolalia, a stream-of-conscious act of vocalizing a sequence of sounds without meaning. Humans today have the same ability; Shamans in South America and other natives that regularly consume hallucinogens go into glossolalia without effort. When combined with material concepts, the sound patterns of glossolalia becomes language—an advantage for early hominids needing a way to pass on knowledge of medicinal plants to their kin.

Turning to modern day uses of psilocybin mushrooms, numerous journalistic, traveler’s tales tell the intrinsic connection between language, hallucinogens, and primitive culture.

In two separate articles McKenna gathered when populating his evidence—“The Mushrooms of Language” by Henry Munn and “The Effects of Psychedelic Experience on Language Functioning” by Stanley Krippner—each engage in language as a quality to benefit our primordial ancestors for thousands, or as the theory goes, tens of thousands of years.

Henry Munn wrote his report upon experiencing a native tribe in South America performing a ritual led by a shaman:“Message fields of communication with the world, others, and one's self are disclosed by the mushrooms.” During the ceremony, the shaman solely speaks and oftentimes enters a type of glossolalia in which the culture’s values and images are materialized through vocalizations (this would only be true glossolalia if the vocalization was random; though the shaman makes nonsensical-sounding hums and vibrations, it still allows the native participants to visualize their culture’s history and communal myths).

If only a small note in anthropology, this type of language produced through droning glottalizations shows a deviation of normal language functioning made functional by psilocybin mushrooms.

Less empirical than Munn, Krippner historicizes the use of psychedelics from its primitive origins through the LSD studies of the sixties—the primary connection between each era being language functioning. He finds “any of the human race's communicative stages—voice-and-ear, chirographic-typographic, electronic—may be observed by the researcher during a round of psychedelic sessions. Therefore, psychedelic drugs offer an unparalleled opportunity for the investigation of human language processes.”

The unfortunate disinterest in this investigation and from its harsh opponents of the scientific community derailed any opportunity to understand psychedelia use beyond journalists experiencing native ceremonies. Nonetheless, current research into psilocybin is slowly finding a home in a limited number of institutes. More importantly, the discussion and investigation of psychedelia use should expand away from “stoner-logic” to an interdisciplinary tour de force.

Numerous archaeological finds discovered depictions of psilocybin mushrooms in various places and times around the world. One such occasion found hallucinogenic mushrooms from works produced 7,000 to 9,000 years ago in the Sahara Desert, as stated in Giorgio Samorini’s article, “The Oldest Representations of Hallucinogenic Mushrooms in the World.” Samorini concluded, “This Saharan testimony would demonstrate that the use of hallucinogens originates in the Paleolithic period and is invariably included within mystico-religious contexts and rituals.”

Some of early man’s first drawings include the ritualization of a plant as a sign—possibly a tribute to the substance that helped in the written sign’s development.

This early depiction of psilocybin mushrooms helped John M. Allegro in his linguistic endeavor decoding modern day Christianity as the misinterpretation of Jesus as a historical-spiritual being, rather than the original intent of personifying the sacred mushroom in a hopelessly rigid phonetic alphabet. Like McKenna’s, this theory gained little traction until later findings from various interdisciplinary researchers seemed to confirm some of the claims.

If we’re to better understand our cognitive functions and primitive origins, we need to expand our reach into the darkness that psychedelics offer us. We need to release our prejudices and embrace what our ancestors have been consuming for thousands of years—possibly hundreds of thousands. Language offers an unparalleled access to our past through drawings and writings, and because of the pioneering work of McKenna and Allegro, among others, we can suppress the ego lizard brain and embrace our fears.

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