Scientists Uncover 3K-Year-Old Drug Trip

Human hair containing hallucinogens offers first direct evidence of prehistoric drug use in Europe
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 7, 2023 2:00 PM CDT
Scientists Uncover 3K-Year-Old Drug Trip
Stock image of locks of hair.   (Getty / thamyrissalgueiro)

Scientists have discovered what's being touted as the first direct evidence of drug use in ancient Europe. The Bronze-Age inhabitants of what is now the Spanish island of Menorca ingested hallucinogens derived from plants, according to analysis of 3,000-year-old human hairs found in a cave that served as a burial site. "Human hair dated to Late Prehistory is exceedingly rare in the Western Mediterranean," the researchers note in a study published Thursday in Scientific Reports. But these strands, dyed red, had been placed in wooden containers sealed within a cave chamber. Researchers say they contained scopolamine and atropine, found in the solanaceae or nightshade family of plants, and ephedrine, which comes from the ephedra genus of shrubs, per the Guardian.

"Interestingly, the psychoactive substances detected in this study are not suitable for alleviating the pain involved in severe palaeopathological conditions attested in the population buried in the cave of Es Carritx, such as periapical abscesses, severe caries and arthropathies," researchers note. University of Valladolid professor and archaeologist Elisa Guerra-Doce, lead author of the study, explains scopolamine and atropine "can induce delirium, hallucinations and altered sensory perception," while ephedrine "can increase excitement, alertness and physical activity," per the Telegraph.

Researchers suspect the cave's inhabitants ingested mandrake, henbane, thorn apple, and joint pine during ritual ceremonies performed by shamans with "highly specialized knowledge" around "the potential toxicity of the alkaloids" the plants contained, "who were capable of controlling the side-effects of the plant drugs through an ecstasy that made diagnosis or divination possible." Concentric circles on the containers "may have depicted eyes and could have been a metaphor for inner vision related to a drug-induced altered state of consciousness," Guerra-Doce adds, per the Telegraph. Only indirect evidence of prehistoric drug use in Europe, including opium alkaloids in containers, had been found previously, though there's plenty of direct evidence of such drug use in other parts of the world. (More hallucinogens stories.)

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