Last week, Spanish archaeologists announced that they’d analysed some 3,600-year-old pieces of hair and found that they contained hallucinogenic drugs. The researchers believe that the samples, which were found in a burial site in the Es Càrritx cave in Menorca, provide the earliest evidence of plant-based drug use in the Bronze Age.
It was suggested that these psychedelics were dished out during some kind of ritual, ancient cave raves that took place more than three millennia ago. Seemingly, shamans acted as both the DJ and the in-house dealer, leading the ceremony and sorting out the party prescriptions. “Considering the potential toxicity of the alkaloids found in the hair, their handling, use, and applications represented highly specialized knowledge,” the researchers noted. “This knowledge was typically possessed by shamans, who were capable of controlling the side-effects of the plant drugs through an ecstasy that made diagnosis or divination possible.”
The scientists found that instead of the classic snap-seal bag, these hallucinogenic drugs were stored in a box made of wood. It was adorned with a psychedelic design featuring geometric shapes that sound like something you could pick up at Camden Market. “This highly sophisticated piece of Prehistoric woodcraft was closed by means of a trilobed lid which had been carved out of boxwood,” the researchers wrote. “Both the lid and the outer walls of the container showed the typical pattern of one or more concentric circles surrounding a central dot.”
“An interesting parallelism may be drawn with the series of concentric circles carved on the lids of the tubes found in the cave of Es Càrritx,” they noted. “Given the mydriatic [pupil-dilating] effect of the alkaloids detected in the hair samples, these circles may be interpreted as eyes, which some scholars have considered as a metaphor of inner vision, in some cases related to altered states of consciousness and visionary experiences under the influence of hallucinogens.” In other words, the ancient Europeans were well into tripping – they even had all the trinkets and paraphernalia. What drugs were they getting smashed on 3,000 years ago, you might ask? Well, here are the most likely sources for the ancient shit they found.
Mandrake (Mandragora Autumnalis)
The mandrake is a short plant with a thick, branched root that looks a bit like a parsnip. Traditionally found in the Mediterranean, it contains deliriant and hallucinogenic tropane alkaloids. In the Old World, people used the root for both its medicinal and psychoactive properties. Depictions of it appeared sculpted in Egyptian tombs and it was mentioned in an Egyptian medical text dated 1550 BC. It was noted for its use as a sedative and for pain relief during surgical procedures, but too much could lead to overdose and death. It was also used to treat fertility issues, leading to an association with male potency and the strengthening of sexual power.
Modern-day equivalent: makes you manically horny but overdose can lead to death? Sounds a lot like G.
Henbane (Hyoscyamus Albus)
Henbane is a toxic plant from the nightshade family. All parts of it – flower, seeds, roots and leaves – contain psychoactive alkaloids. They’re the nitrogen-containing chemicals that certain plants produce to defend themselves from animals that want to eat them and are associated with psychoactive effects. In total, 34 alkaloids have been discovered in the henbane plant, roughly the same amount of interesting compounds that are around in Glastonbury’s Stone Circle at 7am.
Some of these alkaloids – such as hyoscine, hyoscyamine and atropine – work by depressing the central and peripheral nervous systems in humans by interfering with the way neurotransmitters (the brain’s messaging system) travel from one neuron to the next target cell. This can result in hallucinations, lethargy and delirium. Henbane has historically been used in mystical aspects of religious ceremonies and witchcraft.
Modern-day equivalent: hallucinations, lethargy, delirium? Those are the calling cards of ket.
Thornapple (Datura Stramonium)
Thornapple is a type of nightshade also referred to as jimsonweed. It contains toxins that interfere with a specific neurotransmitter, resulting in an altered state of mind. At the end of last year, 100 people in Australia tripped balls when a batch of baby spinach was contaminated with thornapple. A national recall was issued when people reported getting intoxicated after eating salad; symptoms included hallucinations, delirium, blurred vision and dilated pupils. “Never have I been so interested in salad,” a newfound greenery enthusiast tweeted. It’s a shame it wasn’t kale, otherwise it could only be described as a ‘kale-hole’.
Modern-day equivalent: hallucinations, delirium, blurred vision? All the hallmarks of magic mushrooms.
Joint pine (Ephedra Fragilis)
Joint pine is a plant that contains the phenylethylamine derivative ephedrine. An amphetamine-like central nervous system stimulant, it’s currently used to control blood pressure during anaesthesia and treat asthma. And, of course, to synthesise meth. It could be one of the first ever natural drugs that humans used; traces of it have been found in Neanderthal graves in Iraq which are estimated to be 35,000 to 65,000 years old.
“These results confirm the use of different alkaloid‑bearing plants by local communities of this Western Mediterranean island by the beginning of the first millennium BCE,” the researchers concluded. So, next time you’re checking your coat at a club ready to indulge in some chemical transcendence that’ll cause you to dart around like a jolt of electricity for 12 hours, you can dance assured that this is one of the oldest traditions ever.
Modern-day equivalent: it’s got to be speed.