Archaeo-ethnopharmacology of Psychoactive Plant Use in the Old World

May 25, 2022
4:50 pm

From ancient times, plant and fungi sources of psychoactive substances have been used by humans. Motivations for such use have included desires to heal or provide support in daily work, as well as to escape from life’s harsh realities and inspire the ritualized development of spiritual beliefs. Although there are a relatively large number of drug plants and fungi that are regarded as having had ancient mind-altering relationships with humans, only a few have been well documented in the archaeological record of the Eurasia. Examples referred to in this paper include (1) species in Ephedra, a genus generally categorized as comprised of stimulant plants, (2) Cannabis, a genus of closely related multipurpose plants that are sometimes classified as hallucinogenic or entheogenic, and (3) Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy species classified as an archetypical narcotic. All the plants, or their psychoactive secondary metabolites, that are highlighted in this study have drug use histories of varying adulation and condemnation. However, their traditional and modern use patterns of medicinal importance should not be obscured by their shifting status from the sacred to the profane. Shining some light on archaeobotanical evidence of their past use and status may alleviate some unwarranted disrespect or demonization.