Bronze Age Europeans Consumed Hallucinogenic Plants, Study Finds
Image credit: ASOME-Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.
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The researchers behind the study analyzed human hair strands from a burial site in Menorca, Spain.
The hair follicles – which were thought to be around 2,800 old – contained traces of atropine, scopolamine, and ephedrine, chemical compounds known to induce delirious effects.
The researchers behind the study say that these chemicals may have been derived from native plants, such as thorn apple and joint pine, and were used as part of ritual ceremonies performed by a shaman.
A trip to Menorca
The hair strands were found in a wooden container concealed in a cave in the Algendar ravine, which is a well-known site of archeological significance.
The researchers from the Universidad de Valladolid, Spain, then analyzed the hair using ultra-high-performance liquid chromatography-high resolution mass spectrometry (UHPLC-HRMS) and found traces of atropine, scopolamine, and ephedrine.
These alkaloids were likely absorbed into the hair following religious/spiritual use of local psychedelic plants.
Alkaloids like atropine and scopolamine are classified as deliriant drugs (distinguished from psychedelics) as they can induce delirium characterized by extreme mental confusion, strong and realistic hallucinations, and alteration of sensorial perception.
“Out-of-body experiences and a feeling of alteration of the skin, as if growing fur or feathers, are usually reported [after consuming such alkaloids],” according to the researchers behind the study.
While the researchers can’t be certain which plants the ancient cave dwellers consumed to induce these hallucinations, they surmise that Datura stramonium (a weed commonly known as thorn apple) may have been one such plant, given its ratio of scopolamine to atropine, which is similar to the ratio found in the hair samples. Other potential sources include mandrake plants and joint pine bushes.
Given the scant evidence for psychoactive drug use in ancient Europe, the new study’s findings could be significant in understanding this largely forgotten practice on the continent.
“To our knowledge, no quantitative data on the consumption of these alkaloids by past populations has been reported,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
“Considering the potential toxicity of the alkaloids found in the hair, their handling, use, and applications represented highly specialized knowledge,” the researchers continued.
“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.”