Mind-altering substances are nothing new to humanity, but just how long have we been indulging in them? From residues and fossils, we know that the use of psychoactive plants, seeds and fungi has been a steady feature of our time on this planet, dating back to humanity’s earliest known records.
It’s also safe to assume that before we thought to have records of things we have done, we as a species have been using mind altering substances for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was for spiritual enlightenment, religious and social rituals. Let’s look back at some of the oldest known drugs that were used around the world.
1. Anadenanthera: The DMT bean
You’ve probably heard of Ayahuasca, the ancient jungle brew derived from vines and leaves still used by shamans in the indigenous cultures of the Amazon rain-forest. It’s become somewhat of a social phenomenon as of late in North America.
However, Ayahuasca is not the only potent organic cocktail containing psychedelic DMT with a long pedigree in the Americas. Anadenanthera is a kind of bean found in the grasslands of Latin America was dried and crushed into a potent hallucinogenic ritual snuff (sniffed through the nose) during the same ancient time-frame. This stuff appears in creation myths of many cultures.
Known as “Black” Henbane, this poisonous ornamental plant, was used as a type of painkiller in a time long before Tylenol-3 and morphine. It was also a very powerful sedative. Henbane was primarily taken as a drink, but can be absorbed basically through any orifice one saw fit for use.
It was easy to find in the forest, but the person administering it had to know what they were doing as too much Henbane can easily lead to death. Here’s a fun fact: It is believed by Shakespeare enthusiasts that henbane was the poison that was administered into the ear of Hamlet’s father which killed him.
Sounds fun, right? If I told you witches made this stuff would you still wanna take it? One of the main ingredients in this hallucinogenic ointment was the plant belladonna, also known as “deadly nightshade.” An absolutely perfect name for any flower used by witches. Poisonous in high doses, morphine was often used as an antidote, however, it is not proven to have worked.
Poisonous in high doses, morphine was often used as an antidote, however, it is not proven to have worked.
4. LSA & The Eleusinian Mysteries
The Eleusinian Mysteries were initiations held every year for the cult of Demeter and Persephone based at Eleusis in ancient Greece and are the most famous of the secret religious rites of ancient Greece. It is thought that their basis was an old agrarian cult which probably goes back to the Mycenean period (circa 1600 – 1100 BC). The mysteries represented the myth of the abduction of Persephone from her mother Demeter by the king of the underworld Hades, in a cycle with three phases, the descent (loss), the search (trials) and the ascent (enlightenment).
The rites, ceremonies, and beliefs were kept secret and the initiated believed that they would have a reward in the afterlife. There is evidence that the ancient Greeks employed a hallucinogenic drink. This agent was a fungus containing the psychoactive alkaloid lysergic acid amide, or LSA, which has similar effects to LSD.
5. Betel Nut
People throughout Asia had been chewing areca seeds, more commonly known as betel nuts, for centuries before European sailors brought them to Europe during the Renaissance. The nut, used like a kind of chewing tobacco pouched in the lip, is basically a warm, low-grade stimulant, and remains a popular recreational drug throughout Asia. It is also the main cause of the region’s high rates of oral cancer.
One of the oldest drugs in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, Khat is another plant-stimulant whose bitter leaves are chewed casually for energy and mild euphoria. Most popular in Yemen and Somalia, the British tried to ban the use of Khat in its colonies during the 1920’s.
Decades later, Somalian immigrants brought the plant with them to the UK, where it is growing in popularity. Its active ingredient is Cathinone, which is also the kicker in so-called bath salts. Must be something else in the bath salts that makes them eat other people’s faces, though, as nobody chewing Khat has been known to attack other people.
No there is no relation to Rogaine and it will not help you grow your hair back. This shrub is found in West Africa and is considerably stronger than Khat. It is the alkaloid Ibogaine, found in the bark of a shrub Tabernanthe Iboga. Used for millennia as a powerful spiritual tool in a range of rituals and ceremonies.
Considered to be “Africa’s ayahuasca”, it has most recently found use as a way to help people kick a range of high-level addictions such as heroin, meth, and tobacco. But unlike other treatments, studies show that Ibogaine doesn’t just help you kick the habit it actually works on your brain receptors to alleviate the physical pains of withdrawal. Ummm, why aren’t we employing this stuff all over the world?
No doubt you have heard of this most famous of North American hallucinogens. The native tribes of Mexico and the American southwest were harvesting and consuming this small button-like cactus Chewing the bitter buttons results in a heavy mescaline trip, often for spiritual purposes, for at least 5,500 years. It also has traditionally been used for medicinal purposes.
Yes, the plant we talk about all day every day here on this website is on the list because it is one of, if not the, oldest of the mind-altering plants.The oldest written record of cannabis usage is the Greek historian Herodotus’s reference to the central Eurasian Scythian’s taking cannabis steam baths. However, hemp has been discovered in artifacts dating back more than 10,000 years. Some scholars speculate that marijuana may have been key to the development of agriculture, largely because it’s easy to make rope and clothing with hemp fiber.
An oldie but a goodie. Outside of cannabis, opium is definitely the most well-known drug in history for is usage in Asia. Humans have been using opium derived from poppy flowers since at least the middle of the fourth millennium BC when we know it was grown in Southwest Asia, still a major region for cultivation. Today some form of opium can be found in every hospital in the world. It is used primarily as a pain killer in most “Oxy” medications. It is however highly addictive, which is why some pharma companies are working on cannabis-based painkillers in addition to the medical marijuana that can be purchased.
So it’s not surprising, humanity has been into brain altering drugs since before we could write (or chose to write).
Did we miss any drugs from history? Share your thoughts with us on social media or in the comments section below.