People were taking hallucinogenic drugs at cave “raves” 3,000 years ago, reveals new research.
Scientists say that an analysis of strands of human hair from a burial site in Menorca, Spain, indicates that ancient human civilizations used various hallucinogens derived from plants and bushes.
The findings, published in the journal Scientific Reports, are the first direct evidence of ancient drug use in Europe.
The Spanish research team say hallucinogenic drugs may have been used as part of “ritualistic” ceremonies.
Previous evidence of prehistoric drug use in Europe has been based on indirect evidence – such as the detection of opium alkaloids in Bronze Age containers, the finding of remains of drug plants in ritualistic contexts, and the appearance of drug plants in artistic depictions.
Professor Elisa Guerra-Doce and her team examined strands of hair from the Es Càrritx 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.
Previous research suggests that more than 200 people were buried in the chamber.
Strands of hair from only certain individuals were dyed red, placed in wooden and horn containers decorated with concentric circles, and removed to a separate sealed chamber further back in the cave. The hair strands date to around 3,000 years ago.
The researchers used Ultra-High Performance Liquid Chromatography and High Resolution Mass Spectroscopy to test for the presence of the alkaloids atropine, scopolamine, and ephedrine.
They detected scopolamine, ephedrine and atropine in three replicated hair samples.
Guerra-Doce said: “Atropine and scopolamine are naturally found in the nightshade plant family, and can induce delirium, hallucinations, and altered sensory perception.
“Ephedrine is a stimulant derived from certain species of shrubs and pines, which can increase excitement, alertness, and physical activity.”
She says the presence of the alkaloids may have been due to the consumption of some nightshade plants, such as mandrake (Mandragora Autumnalis), henbane (Hyoscyamus Albus) or thorn apple (Datura Stramonium), and joint pine (Ephedra Fragilis).
The researchers believe the drug plants may have been used as part of ritual ceremonies performed by a shaman.
Guerra-Doce, of the University of Valladolid, added: “The concentric circles on the wooden containers may have depicted eyes and could have been a metaphor for inner vision related to a drug-induced altered state of consciousness.”
She suggested that, due to cultural changes around 2,800 years ago, the wooden containers were sealed in the cave chamber in order to preserve ancient traditions.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker