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The History of Mind-Altering Substances

mind-altering substancesWhile today’s society is dealing with many issues related to the pleasurable use of mind-altering substances, the prehistoric inhabitants of Europe did not have the same problem.[1] In fact, they did not use mind-altering substances purely for pleasure.1 The use of alcohol and plant drugs—like opium poppies and hallucinogenic mushrooms—were highly regulated during that time.1 Their use went hand-in-hand with the belief system and sacred burial rituals.1 According to Elisa Guerra-Doce of the Universidad de Valladolid in Spain, the use of alcohol and plant drugs were an integral part of prehistoric beliefs, and these substances were believed to aid in the communication with the spiritual world.1

Although the consumption of these substances is as old as human history, it was only fairly recently that researchers have actually begun digging into the historical and cultural contexts in which mind-altering products were used in Europe.1 Guerra-Doce has systematically documented the cultural significance of consuming these substances in this ancient culture.1 In her research, four different types of archaeological documents were examined: “the macrofossil remains of 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.”1

Guerra-Doce found remnants of psychoactive substances: 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 show the ritual use of hallucinogenic mushrooms.1 However, as Guerra-Doce only found traces of psychoactive substances in tombs and ceremonial places, they are believed to be linked to ritual usage.1 In fact, she believes them to be consumed to alter the state of consciousness to achieve a “trance state.”1

While the details of the rituals are still unclear, the hypothesis that the substances were “used in the course of mortuary rites, to provide sustenance for their deceased into the afterlife, or as a tribute to the underworld,” is strong.1 As these psychoactive agents were used to connect with the spirit world, they were seen as sacred and highly regulated in prehistoric European societies.1

“Far from being consumed for hedonistic purposes, drug plants and alcoholic drinks had a sacred role among prehistoric societies,” said 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 were socially controlled in prehistoric Europe.”1



[1] Springer. (2014, May 12). Alcohol and drugs: Not just for modern humans. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 13, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140512155025.htm

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