Ancient people used hallucinogens: scientists found traces in hair

Scientists studied hair remains found in excavations in Spain and found traces of psychoactive substances. This is the earliest evidence of hallucinogen use. This is reported by the journal Scientific Reports.

The excavations have been conducted on the island of Menorca in Spain, where the human hair, which is more than 3 thousand years old, has been found. High-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), a method that allows molecules to be identified based on their mass, was used for the analysis.

Hair is an organic material that is difficult to find in ancient remains. “Hair is susceptible to decomposition, although its rate of decomposition is slower because of its resistance to bacteria and fungi,” said one of the researchers, Cristina Riewete-Herrada.

The team found several plants at the site that contain alkaloids that have psychotropic effects. These include ephedrine, atropine and scopolamine. The inhabitants of Menorca used these substances more than a thousand years ago.

“The use of psychoactive substances is considered an ancient practice because they can induce altered states of consciousness, which are necessary in many different ceremonial, spiritual and healing rituals. We have had indirect evidence of the use of alkaloids during shamanic practices, especially in some caves. Now we have confirmed the use,” added Cristina Riwete-Herrada.

This finding opens the door to other studies in which we can learn how ancient people used alkaloids elsewhere on Earth. This would help us understand how plants were used for rituals among different peoples, and how the characteristics of the area influenced differences in practices.

The use of hallucinogens in ancient times

The use of psychoactive substances in antiquity is a long-standing practice that has been repeatedly confirmed by archaeological findings. However, according to Cristina Riwete-Herrada, until now there has been no direct evidence of the use of hallucinogens in antiquity.

Today, scientists are able to conduct more precise research, which allows them to detect traces of psychoactive substances in remains found in excavations. One example of such research is the work of scientists at the University of Bristol, who in 2019 found traces of cocaine and other drugs in the remains of Peruvian mummies more than 1,000 years old.

The practice of using hallucinogens was common among various peoples of antiquity. For example, Native Americans used mescaline, Amazonian shamans used ayuasca, and in India they practiced the use of soma.

One expert who has spoken on this topic is Lucas Silva Santos, a Brazilian researcher specializing in the history of drug use.

“This is a very important study that shows that the practice of using hallucinogens has been prevalent for many thousands of years. It proves that humanity has always sought new states of consciousness and an understanding of its role in the world,” Santos said.

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