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Home » People Were Using Psychedelic Drugs in Bronze Age Europe, Study Finds

People Were Using Psychedelic Drugs in Bronze Age Europe, Study Finds

by junitop
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3,000-year-old human hair — possibly from a shaman — contains traces of mild-altering substances

People have been using mind-altering substances for a long, long time.

While archaeologists and historians have long suspected that people in Bronze Age Europe consumed psychoactive drugs, they now have hard scientific evidence to back it up.

And it’s all thanks to several tiny strands of human hair found impeccably preserved in a 3,000-year-old burial site in Spain.

Those hairs, researchers have found, contain traces of three different alkaloid substances that are known to cause altered states of consciousness.

“It was amazing,” Rafael Mico, a professor of archeological pre-history at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. “It is the first direct evidence in Europe of the consumption [of psychedelic drugs].”

Mico co-authored a new study describing the findings, which was published this month in the journal Scientific Reports.

A new analysis of a decades-old discovery 

It’s a finding, says Mico, that was decades in the making.

It begins in the mid-’90s, with the discovery of a sealed grotto on Minorca, an island off the coast of eastern Spain. The cave, called Es Càrritx, contained the remains of about 200 Bronze Age people.

Some of those people, says Mico, had their hair dyed red. Locks of their hair were found placed inside decorated, tubular boxes made from wood and antlers.

The archeological finds inside the grotto were unusually well-preserved, because the cave’s opening had long ago been sealed off by collapsed rubble. 

“It was a miracle to recover these strands of hair thanks to very, very unique conditions,” Mico said.

A lock of hair.
Human hair from a 3,000-year-old burial site in Spain contains traces of three different alkaloid substances that are known to cause altered states of consciousness. (Research Group in Mediterranean Social Archaeoecology/Autonomous University of Barcelona)

Early analysis of those hair samples didn’t teach researchers much, Mico said. But over time, the science improved — so they tried again.

And this time around, they found evidence of three compounds that can be produced from native plants — the hallucinogens atropine and scopolamine, and the stimulant ephedrine. 

All three are used in modern medicine for wide variety or purposes, including atropine for countering nerve agent poisoning, scopolamine for treating motion sickness and ephedrine for lowering blood pressure during anesthesia.

The analysis suggests the individual the hair belonged to would have been consuming those psychoactive compounds regularly for at least a year before they died.

This isn’t the first clue that Bronze Age people in what is now known as Europe used drugs — much like folks in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica did.

But previous research was more circumstantial — for example, archeological finds of what appeared to be smoking pipes.

“This is why keeping archaeological remains in good condition [is] important to allow future analysis,” Mico said. 

What were they used for?

There’s no way to know for sure exactly how these ancient cultures used mind-altering drugs, but Mico says the evidence suggests it was quite different from how we consume psychedelics today. 

“In our society, we take drugs probably to get away, to forget some disgusting situations or embarrassing situations. But we think that in the past, in Minorca, the drugs were used only by certain individuals to perform this …. specific social role,” he said.

“Our hypothesis is that these individuals were a kind of shaman.”

Those shamans, Mico said, would have acted as a kind of “intermediary” between real, everyday life and “another perception, another state of mind.”

On the left, a picture taken from inside the opening of a cave showing water and the horizon. On the right, a close-up of a rocky cave interior shows a pile of half buried pots and tube-shaped containers.
A cave used as a burial site during the Bronze Age contained tubular containers made of wood or antler holding locks of dyed red hair. (P. Arnau, J. L. Florit, J. Márquez & M. Márquez/Scientific Reports)

University of Saskatchewan medical historian Erika Dyck, who wasn’t involved in the study, has long studied the history of psychedelic drugs.

She says there’s plenty of evidence of their use throughout history in societies around the world, including ancient Egypt and China, and various pre-contact Indigenous cultures. 

But she says our modern framework for understanding drugs — with clear delineations between medicinal, recreational and spiritual use — tend to fall short.

“There are ways that what we now call psychedelic plants were used to try to reach into different depths of knowledge. And that might be considered like philosophical knowledge. It might be spiritual knowledge. It could even be political,” she said.

“It might have been considered sort of recreational, but also it was designed to help people achieve insight into different realms.”

Dyck says studies like this one are important, and modern-day researchers trying to assess risks and rewards of these drugs would do well to look at history.

“There is thousands of years now of evidence of humans using these kinds of substances, and there may be other ways of evaluating their effectiveness or their value to society,” she said.

“There are always really fascinating moments where we can begin to see how psychedelics were appreciated in a different moment, and that we might not have all the answers today. And there might actually be wisdom in looking back before we think about propelling them forward into a regulatory space that, you know, doesn’t really appreciate their longstanding uses.”

Source : CBC

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