Archeological Evidence Suggests Prehistoric Humans Used Psychoactives

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by Owen Poindexter

on February 19, 2015

A new examination of archaeological evidence shows that humans all over the world have used psychoactive compounds for millennia, boosting the idea that consciously altering one’s state of mind is simply part of human nature. In discussions of drug use, we see a wide range of approaches from the statistical to the philosophical. Rarely, however, do we get the archaeological. Dr. Elisa Guerre-Doce, associate professor of prehistory at the University of Valladolid in Spain, has worked to change that.

“It is generally thought that mind-altering substances, or at least drugs, are a modern day issue, but if we look at the archaeological record, there are many data supporting their consumption in prehistoric times,” Dr. Guerra-Doce told the Huffington Post via email.  Dr. Guerra-Doce’s study looked at research on prehistoric drug use, which relies largely on material remains. Guerra-Doce examined fossils of psychoactive plants, remnants of fermented drinks and teeth stained from chewing the betel nut. In some cases, chemical traces have been found in human bones.

The findings present perhaps the broadest historical perspective to date on human psychoactive use.  Her review also cites use of fermented wine in China, the hallucinogenic San Pedro cactus in Mexico, opium in Rome and coca leaves in South America, all between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago.  With the global scale of this research, Dr. Guerra-Doce shows that drug use is truly cross-cultural. While the specific substances involved change with the geography, the general use of drugs is universal. Furthermore, she showed that altering one’s consciousness never goes out of style.

“As soon as drug plants and fermented drinks were first consumed, there is uninterrupted evidence for such use over centuries, and occasionally, the relationship that began in prehistoric times has continued into the present day,” she told the Huffington Post.  While attempts to police psychoactive use has largely revolved around the ideal that it is theoretically possible to eradicate that use, the evidence suggests that this is a pipe dream. The relationship between humans and psychoactive substances is nearly as old as the invention of agriculture, whereas our current attempts to police this usage are a relative blip on the historical timeline.  Perhaps this speaks to our inability to affect drug usage rates, despite billions of dollars poured into this endeavor.

“Considering the failures of the War on Drugs, perhaps our modern societies should look into the past and learn something from ‘the primitive’ so that we might find out how to maximize the potential benefits and minimize the potential for harm of substances that humans have been using for millennia,” Guerra-Doce wrote to the Huffington Post.

This comprehensive study provides useful context to discussions of modern psychoactive use. While there can be reasonable debate over finer points like the age at which people can safely use psychoactieves and settings in which intoxication is appropriate, it is clear that attempts to stop use are doomed to fail.  The focus should instead be on how best to incorporate this natural human desire into today’s society.