An analysis of human hair strands recovered from a burial site in Menorca, Spain, reveals that ancient human civilizations used hallucinogenic drugs derived from plants.
According to the researchers, the findings are the first direct evidence of ancient drug use in Europe, which may have been used as part of ritualistic ceremonies.
Previous evidence of prehistoric drug use in Europe was based on indirect evidence, such as the discovery of opium alkaloids in Bronze Age containers, the discovery of drug plant remains in ritualistic contexts, and the appearance of drug plants in artistic depictions.
Researchers detected scopolamine, ephedrine, and atropine in three replicated hair samples.
Atropine and scopolamine are naturally occurring substances in the nightshade plant family that can cause delirium, hallucinations, and altered sensory perception. Ephedrine is a stimulant derived from certain shrubs and pines that can boost excitement, alertness, and physical activity.
Elisa Guerra-Doce and colleagues noted in their study that, considering the potential toxicity of the alkaloids found in the hair, their handling, use, and applications represented highly-specialised knowledge.
Authors said: “As early as the Paleolithic period, humans came across the non-food properties of certain plants.
“The results presented here indicate that several alkaloid-bearing plants were consumed by Bronze Age people from Menorca (although Solanaceae and Ephedra were not the only ones to have been consumed).
“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.
The scientists suggest the presence of these substances may have been due to consumption of some nightshade plants, such as mandrake, henbane or thorn apple, and joint pine.
It is thought these drug plants may have been used as part of ritual ceremonies performed by a shaman.
According to the researchers, the concentric circles on the wooden containers they were discovered in may have depicted eyes and could have been a metaphor for inner vision related to a drug-induced altered state of consciousness.
Elisa Guerra-Doce and colleagues from Spain’s Universidad de Valladolid examined hair strands from the Es Carritx cave in Menorca, which was first occupied around 3,600 years ago and contained a chamber used as a funeral space until around 2,800 years ago. According to past studies, around 210 individuals were interred in this chamber.
However, only certain people had their hair dyed red, placed in decorative wooden and horn containers, and taken to a different, sealed chamber further back in the cave.
The new research was published in Scientific Reports.