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We know that Homo sapiens (modern humans) evolved from Homo erectus, but what was it precisely that launched that evolutionary process? Scientists have long debated over this question. But one author developed a particularly unique and fascinating theory. He called it the “Stoned Ape Hypothesis.”

This controversial theory was developed by none other than the late Terence McKenna, one of the world’s most prominent champions of psychedelic drugs, who describes the transition of Homo erectus into Homo sapiens, essentially, as a series of magic mushrooms trips so significant that it launched us into our present state of consciousness.

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Photo of Terence McKenna

This theory first made an appearance in McKenna’s 1992 book, Food of the Gods. According to McKenna, this process took place due to psilocybin mushrooms’ ability to re-wire the human brain into a state of “hyperconnected” communication between brain networks. These new connections in the brain, according to the theory, elevated  Homo erectus into a higher state of consciousness.

One reason why McKenna sees this theory as being realistic is due to early-humans’ increasing dependency on cattle, and therefore regular proximity to cow manure, where psilocybin mushrooms are grown.

In general, the question of just how Homo erectus leaped to Homo sapiens remains a continuing source of controversy for scientists. Within this period, about 1.8 million years ago, these early humans’ brain size doubled, which is often seen as a bizarre, and extraordinary evolutionary leap.

“What the hell happened? What was the factor?” Asks McKenna in one presentation. “The earth was already old, many hundreds of higher animal forms had come and gone, and the fire of intelligence had never been kindled. So what happened? I think that the answer lies in diet generally, and in psychedelic chemistry in particular.”

Ethnobiologist, Terrance McKenna gives three basic explanations for his theory:

The first is that psilocybin “in very low doses… increases visual acuity.” Says McKenna. For a hunter-gatherer species, McKenna likens this to “chemical binoculars lying there in the grass.” Therefore, the Homo erectus that ate small doses of psilocybin mushrooms were better hunters and foragers.

The second explanation according to Terrance McKenna is that “slightly larger doses of psilocybin in primates create what’s called arousal.” McKenna suggests that this lead early humans who snacked on magic mushrooms to have more sex, and therefore, non-psilocybin eating Homo Erectus would be rooted out of the evolutionary totem pole through basic natural selection.

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psilocybin mushrooms (Photo by Roger Cremers/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

 

The final explanation is that even higher doses of psilocybin mushrooms, according to McKenna, create “spontaneous bursts of language-like behavior,” known as glossolalia (if you’ve ever seen evangelical church-goers “speak in tongues,” then you’ve seen glossolalia.) This non-sensical babbling, says McKenna, was the first step towards modern speech.

McKenna also claims, anecdotally, that when he visited Kenya, he saw “Baboons spreading out over a grassland” and rifling through manure to find food.

So how credible is this theory? To be sure, Terrance McKenna’s theory is generally ignored by the scientific community, due to a lack of evidence.

McKenna’s three explanations, as listed above, are really only abstractions. Though I suppose, historically, plenty of scientific theories that are ignored by the community are later proven to be true.

Whether or not the theory holds any water, it’s certainly fascinating, and one can only hope that further evidence proves Terrance McKenna right—just imagine teaching that theory in science class.

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