Psychedelics may be illegal in most modern Western societies, but an archaeologist has concluded that these visionary substances have played an integral part in human history – and what’s more, their role was initially a spiritual one, rather than being for pleasure. Elisa Guerra-Doce of the Universidad de Valladolid in Spain has found that plant drugs such as opium poppies and hallucinogenic mushrooms are directly connected with the sacred burial rituals of many pre-industrial societies, suggesting they were used in some way for access or communication with the spirit world:
Guerra-Doce systematically documented the cultural significance of consuming inebriating substances in these cultures. In the research, four different types of archaeological documents were examined: the macrofossil remains of the leaves, fruits or seeds of psychoactive plants; residues suggestive of alcoholic beverages; psychoactive alkaloids found in archaeological artifacts and skeletal remains from prehistoric times; and artistic depictions of mood-altering plant species and drinking scenes.
These remnants include bits of the opium poppy in the teeth of a male adult in a Neolithic site in Spain, charred Cannabis seeds in bowls found in Romania, traces of barley beer on several ceramic vessels recovered in Iberia, and abstract designs in the Italian Alps that depict the ritual use of hallucinogenic mushrooms.Because Guerra-Doce mainly found traces of sensory-altering products in tombs and ceremonial places, she believes such substances are strongly linked to ritual usage. They were consumed in order to alter the usual state of consciousness, or even to achieve a trance state.
The details of the rituals are still unclear, but the hypothesis is that the substances were either used in the course of mortuary rites, to provide sustenance for the deceased in their journey into the afterlife, or as a kind of tribute to the underworld deities.She adds that the right to use such substances may have been highly regulated given that they were a means to connect with the spirit world, and therefore played a sacred role among prehistoric European societies.
“Far from being consumed for hedonistic purposes, drug plants and alcoholic drinks had a sacred role among prehistoric societies,” says Guerra-Doce. “It is not surprising that most of the evidence derives from both elite burials and restricted ceremonial sites, suggesting the possibility that the consumption of mind-altering products was socially controlled in prehistoric Europe.”
Guerra-Doce’s paper is titled “The Origins of Inebriation: Archaeological Evidence of the Consumption of Fermented Beverages and Drugs in Prehistoric Eurasia“, and can be found in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.
For an entertaining and highly readable summary of psychedelic use in prehistoric times, see Paul Devereux’s wonderful book The Long Trip: A Prehistory of Psychedelia (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK), one of Daily Grail Publishing’s most popular books.