Prehistoric drug kit is evidence of Stoned Age
by Jonathan Leake, Science Editor
The Times Online
October 19, 2008
Stone Age humans could well have deserved the name. Scientists have found the drug paraphernalia used by prehistoric humans to cook up herbal mixtures to get themselves high.
Scientists have long suspected that humans have an ancient history of drug use but much of the evidence has been indirect, ranging from the bizarre images found in prehistoric cave art to the discovery of hemp seeds in excavations.
Now, however, researchers have found equipment used to prepare hallucinogenic drugs for sniffing, and dated them back to South American tribes.
Quetta Kaye, of University College London, and Scott Fitz-patrick, an archeologist from North Carolina State University, found the ceramic bowls, plus tubes used to inhale drug fumes or powders, on the Caribbean island of Carriacou.
The bowls appear to have originated in South America between 100BC and 400BC and were then carried the 400 miles to the islands. One implication is that drug use may have been widespread for thousands of years before this time.
Kaye’s research, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, said: “The objects tested for this study are ceramic inhaling bowls that were likely used for the ingestion of hallucinogenic substances.”
The use of such paraphernalia for inhaling drugs is well-known but the age was a surprise. What is less clear is exactly which drugs would have been used. Cannabis was not found in the Caribbean then.
There were, however, alternatives. Kaye believes one of the most likely was cohoba, a hallucinogen made from the beans of a mimosa species.
Archeological investigations in Mexico and Texas have found indirect evidence that as far back as 5,000 years ago humans were extracting mind-expanding drugs from mescal beans and peyote cacti, while opiates can be obtained from species such as poppies.
Fungi may also have been used. Moulds, including the powerfully hallucinogenic ergot found on rotting vegetation, were common in caves. Fungi like the fly agaric toadstool or psilocybin mushroom were also widespread.
Richard Davenport-Hines, a former history lecturer at the London School of Economics and author of The Pursuit of Oblivion, a global history of narcotics, believes humans have been using drugs for thousands of years.
“Drug use became widespread in many early agriculture-based societies simply because it was the only way people could cope with spending long hours working in the fields, often in horrible conditions like baking sun,” he said.
Many archeologists believe religion and spiritual beliefs must also have played a part, with drugs being used to induce spiritual or trance-like states.