Scientific Paper Catalogs Oldest Known Connections Between Humans and Psychoactive Plants

By Ben Grenrock on May 29, 2019

The drive to experience altered states of consciousness appears to be an innate part of mammalian biology. Primates and elephants seek out fermented fruit for an alcohol buzz, reindeer in Siberia graze on psychedelic Amanita muscaria mushrooms, and jaguars like this one add the leaves of the banisteriopsis caapi vine (a key ingredients in ayahuasca) to their typically carnivorous diet, rendering themselves temporarily incapacitated by the plant’s potent hallucinogenic effects.

As for us humans, one need only look around at the pervasive advertisements for alcohol, the ubiquity of caffeine, and the explosive growth of the cannabis industry to see that our species has perhaps the largest appetite for altered states of them all. Craft brews and hash pens are modern delivery methods for psychoactive substances, but humanity’s relationship with the plants from which beer and hash are derived stretches back for millennia.

To illustrate both how ancient our species’ interest in altered states is, as well as the cross-cultural universality of that interest, Italian ethnobotanist and researcher Giorgio Samorini dug through global ethnobotanical findings to compile a list of the oldest known archeological data indicating the relationship between Homo sapiens and many psychoactive plants.

Samorini’s paper, published in the Journal of Psychedelic Studies, offers a detailed, temporal map of the interconnected history of humans and psychoactive plants by citing the earliest archeological record of our ancestors’ interactions with wine, beer, opium, psychedelic mushrooms, ergot, a species of psychoactive lettuce, an ancient emetic/stimulant that bears the descriptive-if-unappetizing name “Black Drink,” and many more.

Samorini explains that, in some cases, the dates attached to these findings only expressly confirm the proximity of these plants to ancient peoples, rather than the use of them in a psychoactive context. Often, while the findings may not definitively confirm that the plant had been consumed, its psychoactive use can be inferred based on context. For example, chemical evidence—like the presence of certain metabolites that the body creates only in response to having ingested cocaine and alcohol found in South American mummies—confirms without a doubt that ancient peoples consumed those specific mind-altering substances at a specific date.

In others, the evidence is more interpretative. Predating those mummies by several thousand years, archeologists discovered coca leaves and the “spheroidal balls of compressed slaked lime… which can be associated with the consumption of coca leaves,” on the floor of an ancient dwelling in Peru. Samorini’s paper gives the oldest known date for direct or indirect evidence for use of these plants. Therefore, it states the oldest known human use of coca as taking place around 6000 B.C. in Peru, the date associated with the site in which the coca and lime were found on that house’s floor.

Of all the substances listed in the paper, the one with the oldest, and maybe most robust, relationship to humans is beer. Our connection with beer stretches back to at least 11,000 B.C. in Israel, where the oldest known cereal beer was processed at Mount Carmel. Ancient beer production has been identified in 7th millennium B.C. China, in Iran at around 3000 B.C., and a 5000-year-old brewery discovered in Egypt was so extensive it’s estimated to have been able to crank out more than 1,100 liters of beer every day. The paper also notes that archeologists are beginning to think that widespread cereal cultivation (i.e., farming and civilization as we know it) began to feed people’s growing thirst for beer rather than their hunger for bread, and that the importance of cereal crops as a food source was actually secondary to their use in making beer. Cheers.

The second oldest plant on the list is the San Pedro cactus. A high concentration of pollen from the mescaline-containing, psychedelic cactus was found at the oldest layer of habitation in a cave located in Peru. That habitation layer is dated to 8600 B.C.

Hemp is fourth on the list, right behind San Pedro and Mescalbean (8440 B.C., Texas), dated to 8200 B.C. The finding comes from Japan, where at the Okinoshima site of the Jomon culture, macrofossils of good old Cannabis sativa were discovered clinging to fragments of pottery. As with the above San Pedro finding, while this does confirm a relationship between humans and cannabis that stretches back more than 10,000 years, it’s impossible to know what the plant was used for and if those ancient shards of pottery actually represent the most ancient stash vessels as we understand stash vessels today. The oldest known date of humans interacting with hemp in Europe is given as between 7000 to 6000 B.C.

Other notable psychoactive plants still in use today listed in the paper are: psilocybin mushrooms (6000 B.C., Sahara), wine (5800 B.C., Georgia—the country), opium poppy (5600 B.C., Italy), peyote (3200 B.C., Texas), and tobacco (1500 B.C., North America).

Photo credit: Gary Todd/Flickr.

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