A new study from Spain’s University of Valladolid has found that prehistoric Eurasians treated alcohol and drugs as sacramental tools for rituals and ceremonies. It is likely that due to the high level of value placed on the substances, they were made available only to spiritual leaders and elite individuals. The use of psychoactives in many ancient cultures of Eurasia is documented in early writings. Herodotus, arguably the most famous historian of ancient Greece, told of a purification ceremony of the Scythians, done after a funeral, using hemp. The Scythians were a Persian culture that excelled at the equestrian arts around the fifth century BC.
Archaeologists, however, do not only have written documents that point to the ancient use of alcohol and drugs. Prehistory expert, Elisa Guerra-Doce, the author of the study, points out that some of the other indicators of ancient drug use in Eurasia are of an artistic nature. Opium poppies are often depicted. Also, designs of a more abstract nature, found in megalithic tombs, seem to have been created during hallucinogenic episodes. More concrete, is the discovery of fossilized plant remains that have mind altering properties.
Despite these and other indicators, pre-historical Eurasian use of psychoactive substances has been largely ignored by today’s archaeologists. Because of this, Guerra-Doce sifted through the scattered data and began a process that she hoped would aid in gaining a deeper understanding of the history of the altered mind in ancient Eurasia.
For her research, Guerra-Doce evaluated four types of evidence. She interpreted representations of what are believed to be psychoactive plants and portrayals of scenes in which drinking is taking place. She then studied psychoactive plant remains found in large fossilized forms. Finally, what may be most telling, Guerra-Doce looked at fermented beverage residues found in artifacts and chemical compounds in skeletal remains.
Though it is difficult to know exactly how certain substances were used, many sites from pre-history in Eurasia have provided archaeologists with a variety of psychoactive remains. They are all familiar to modern-day mind altering activities. Opium from poppy flowers, ergot fungi, deadly nightshade and hallucinogenic mushrooms all have been discovered at ancient sites.
Of course, not everyone agrees on who, or what, were using these substances. In Shanidar, Iraq, a burial cave from Neanderthal times, about 60,000 BC, held a host of remains from plant species known for their medicinal qualities. Some researchers believe that this indicates the grave was for a shaman. Others, however, propose that a rodent called a Persian jird dragged the plants there sometime after the death of the human occupant.
This does not mean that there is a shortage of archaeobotanical evidence of the use of psychoactive substances in prehistory. For instance, near Bucharest in Romania, charred seeds of the cannabis plant were found in tombs, suggesting that the THC-rich female plants were burned in some way. Residue of various alcoholic beverages like, beer, mead, fruit wines and even fermented dairy drinks imply that Eurasians of prehistoric times imbibed them.
The people of China seem to have discovered the wonders of alcoholic fermentation around 7,000 BC. Two thousand years later, the people of the Zagros Mountains in northwestern Iran were drinking a wine that was instilled with pine resin. Archaeologists have also unearthed a winery in southeastern Armenia in use around 4,000 BC. On the same site were 20 graves, hinting that the wine making may have been for mortuary services and the graves also contained drinking vessels. Guerra-Doce believes, based on the fact that most fragments of pottery with wine and beer residues have been found at grave sites, mind altering substances could have been used for communicating with the world of spirits.
The artistic endeavors she studied also gave hints from the past of ceremonial alcohol and drug use. “The Poppy Goddess” is a 30 inch figurine made of terracotta. She was discovered in a 3,000 year old Minoan cult chamber on the largest island in Greece, Crete. Breasts bared and arms upraised, her head had three poppy capsule-shaped hairpins that were movable. Not only do the capsules suggest the opium extraction process, but her serene, trance-like face hints at opium usage.
The analysis Guerra-Doce is putting forth indicates that mind altering substances were used by privileged citizens. She points to where archaeologists have primarily found the evidence of psychoactive substances: ceremonial sites and graves of presumably influential individuals. Two strong examples come from Spain. In the southeastern part of the country, an archaeological dig at a cemetery from the Bronze Age uncovered opiate alkaloids in upper class tombs. At a well-appointed tomb in another region, evidence of hyoscyamine alkaloids was found. This is a hallucinogen from the family of nightshade plants.
Like psychoactive drugs, alcohol appears to have been primarily used by the elite. The Hochdorf Chieftain’s Grave is a Celtic chamber in Germany. Dated at approximately 530 BC, the burial was for a man who was approximately 40 years old. The tomb itself was regal and contained a huge cauldron made of bronze that came from Greece. In it was 92 gallons of mead.
Guerra-Doce surmises that before alcohol was able to be produced in large quantities, out of necessity, it was held in reserve for exclusive events. Once large-scale processes were begun, making alcohol available to a greater number of people, potent potables went from ceremonial to a more recreational use.
In ancient times, however, psychoactive plants never saw large-scale cultivation. Though difficult to find in records of archaeology, psychoactive drugs became used recreationally just as alcohol did. Not surprisingly, Guerra-Doce said that very early on, judging by the common use names given to the plants, a cultural taboo may have been placed upon the largely hedonistic use of mind altering drugs. Given that the prehistoric Eurasians had treated both alcohol and drugs as sacraments it is not surprising that the recreational use of the substances would have been frowned upon.
By Stacy Lamy