The so-called war on drugs has been raging for half a century, but humans haven’t always taken such a prohibitionist approach to narcotics. Compiling archaeological data from around the world, a new study in the Journal of Psychedelic Studies indicates when mankind first began using different drugs, revealing that our love affair with mind-altering substances goes back more than 13 millennia.
Study author Giorgio Samorini conducted an in-depth review of the existing archaeological literature in order to determine the earliest evidence for human use of cannabis, opium, magic mushrooms, alcohol, and many other psychoactive plants.
The oldest signs of drug use anywhere in the world were traced back to a cave in Mount Carmel in Israel, where starch granules found on tools displayed malformations that are typically associated with beer brewing. Dated to the 11th century BCE, this find suggests that our species has been getting drunk on beer for at least 13,000 years.
Recent research has revealed that the first cannabis plants originated on the Tibetan Plateau, but the earliest evidence for human use of the drug comes from Japan, where macrofossils containing parts of the plant were found on pieces of pottery from 8200 BCE.
Opium poppies, meanwhile, are typically associated with countries like Afghanistan, but it seems they were first created in Italy by deliberate cross-pollination of various types of non-opium-containing poppies. Several intermediate forms between the natural poppy and the opium poppy have been found at a Neolithic site in Rome, where inhabitants developed the first narcotic strain of the plant around 5600 BCE.
As for magic mushrooms – which contain a psychoactive compound called psilocybin – it seems that the first humans to experience their psychedelic effects hailed from the Sahara desert, where prehistoric paintings from around 8,000 years ago depict human figures holding mushrooms, from which dotted lines connect to their heads.
According to the study author, “this detail would seem to indicate that the artist was intending to convey a statement regarding the psychoactive effects that the fungus has on the human mind.”
Heading across to the New World, coca leaves found on the floor of a house in northern Peru have been dated back to 6000 BCE, suggesting that people have been utilizing the plant from which cocaine is now produced for at least 8,000 years.
Summing up these findings, Samorini stresses these dates do not necessarily correspond to the earliest use of these drugs, but to the oldest archaeological evidence for their consumption. It is therefore entirely possible that humans have been ingesting each of these substances for even longer than these data suggest.