Archive for the ‘Antiquity of drug use’ Category

As the prehistoric period begins to close up everywhere—even in the isolated crannies and corners of the world—millennia of prehistoric drug use have left us with no understanding at all of why people use psychoactive dugs. Human beings eat and drink only those substances which nourish their bodies, drugs excepted. They don’t eat soil or grasses  except under bizarre conditions. A half answer might be that we use drugs because drugs satisfy us just as food does. But this begs the question, why should feelings of reward attach to drugs when those same feelings do not attach to any substance accept those that our bodies need ?

In a reversal of natural sequencing, the answer to ‘why do individuals use drugs?’ became clear  following research into ‘why do some individuals overuse drugs?’

 This research began in the USA in the 1960s, following the influx of what seemed excessive student drug use and multiple drug use on US campuses. At the time, the current explanatory paradigm emphasized the causal relationship between drug seeking behaviour and physical dependence, a physiological state which could be empirically verified. Accordingly, early experiments used as subjects already drug dependent animals; it being both unethical and difficult to use people in this type of investigation.

Laboratory animals quickly learn to self administer most of the drugs commonly used by individuals for non‑ medical, recreational purposes. These included  opoids, barbiturates, alcohol, anesthetic gases, local anesthetics, volatile solvents, and central nervous system stimulants like  phencyclidine, nicotine and caffeine. However, animals avoided using substances ignored by humans. This indicated, at first thought, a causal relationship between physical  dependence and drug‑seeking behaviour.

 But logic and  empirical observation led to further investigation.  It revealed that some drugs which do not produce physical  dependence nevertheless produce drug‑seeking behaviour in  experimental animals.  Moreover, it was realized that, even with drugs that produce physical  dependence, the initial drug‑seeking behaviour could not be  attributed to physical dependence since this takes time to  become established.  The general text book Goodman and  Gilman’s Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics (1985) describes  this research thus:


Such observations suggest that pre‑existing psychopathology is not a requisite for initial or even continued drug taking, and that drugs themselves are powerful reinforcers, even in the absence of physical dependence (Gilman et al. 1985:534).

  Although  wild animals do not have comparable access to drugs, there  are numerous examples of them ingesting psychoactive  substances.  There is a close association between reindeer and the psychoactive fly‑agaric mushroom in Siberia (Furst  1972:101).  It is commonly accepted that grazing animals  prefer fermented fallen fruit and that birds sometimes select nectars which intoxicate.  Altogether, there is  increasing evidence that animals seek out psychoactive  experiences.  Researchers from the University of California  claim knowledge of more than 2,000 cases of animals  consuming psychoactive substances, of which 310 were  investigated and their use found to be ‘intentional and  addictive’ (Greenberg 1983:300).


Simultaneous with the above research, a rush of interest began in the newly unfolding science of neurobiology. Instead of electricity firing the brain as formerly thought, scientists discovered that central nervous system activity depended upon least fifty chemical compounds named neurotransmitters. The latter controlled and coordinated flows of information between the  neurons within the brain, including data about  emotions, memories and pleasures.

 The main chemical transmitters  include dopamine, acetylcholine, nor epinephrine, serotonin,  gamma‑amino butyric acid, and the recently discovered opoid  peptides. Each possesses a specific molecular and spatial  arrangement which enables it to ‘plug’ into a receptor in a  target neuron, rather like a key into a lock.  The neuron is thus activated, information passes from one neuron to the  next, and the neurotransmitter, its function accomplished, decays.

 This may seem far distant from  packing a cone or sipping gin and tonic.  Here is the connection. Humans and non- human animals are not the only natural phenomena containing neurotransmitters. Some plants contain (almost) identical chemicals.  A unique situation results. The nicotine in  tobacco, for example, fits receptors designed for  the acetylcholine receptor and, once plugged into the receptor, nicotine  activates the same processes that acetylcholine can activate. Similarly, morphine from opium poppies fits receptors  for the body’s endogenous opiates… and so on. 

However, one difference exists  between plant chemicals and the mammal neurotransmitters of  which they are analogues. Plant neurotransmitters are  much more resistant to inactivation by biotransformation  processes. Therefore plant neurotransmitters often become potent neurotoxic  agents (Kosterlitz and Hughes 1978:412).  Thus, the effect of  psychoactive drugs is to potentiate or inhibit  neurotransmitters, or alter their synthesis, storage or  release.  By this means drug use modifies memory, learning,  emotions, mood, and perceptions of self and others (Levine  1978:344). 

That leaves unanswered the question, “why do drugs make us feel good?”


Furst, P. (1972). Flesh of the gods: The ritual use of hallucinogens.London. George Allen & Unwin.

Greenberg, M. (1983). Natural highs in natural habitats. Science News, 124, 300-301.

Gilman, A.G., Goodman, L.S., Rall, T.W, & Murad, F. (1985). Goodman and Gilman’s pharmacological basis of therapeutics. New York. MacMillan.

Kosterlitz, H.W., and Hughes, J. (1978). Endogenous opoid peptides. In J. Fishman (Ed) The bases of addiction: Report of the Dahlem Workshop on the bases of addiction. Abakon. Verlagagesellschaft.

Levine, R.R. (1978). Drug actions and reactions. Boston. Little Brown and company.

Schuster, C. (197) Drugs as reinforcers in monkey and man. Pharmacological Reviews 27:511-251

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The Need to Know

Pre-historians and others speculate that people have been consuming mind-altering drugs for thousands of years. In 1995 Andrew Sherratt, at the time Inaugural Professor of Old World Prehistory at Sheffield University stimulated this issue with an authoritative statement. ‘The deliberate seeking of psychoactive experience is likely to be at least as old as anatomically (and behaviorally) modern humans, one of the characteristics of Homo sapiens sapiens’ (Sherratt 1995:33). That is, about 70,000 -50,000 years before the present era.

Sherratt’s ideas are uncommon among anthropologists—my profession. It is true that prehistory, ancient history, archaeology and anthropology are ‘sister’ occupations along the same academic spectrum dealing with human life, but there are different emphases in each. In anthropological theory it is ’Culture’ that is fundamental to human life, certainly not drug consumption. Despite this, I have had a long interest in investigating the near universal practice of altering consciousness. Does it arise from socio-cultural conditioning? Alternatively, could it be an innate drive based on the neuro-physiological structures within the brain?

When I began thinking about these theories, I was already a pharmaceutical chemist in addition to studying anthropology. Both professions deepened my capacity for researching the issue, although from opposing perspectives. The failure of the ‘War on Drugs’ motivated me further.

If two mutually–exclusive causes of a phenomena exist, or appear to, and this conflict remains unresolved, then incoherence and uncertainty results. With the true cause of drug-seeking unknown, plans to control the phenomena will be hit and miss. Or perhaps fail, just as the War on Drugs has. Future directions of phenomena cannot be evaluated nor its costs appraised. Similarly, society should hesitate to condemn the moral fibre of those caught up in the phenomena if the cause of drug seeking is unresolved (Committee on Opportunities in Drug Abuse Research !996).

Examining the prehistoric period is essential to clarifying the issue. If changing consciousness is an innate drive based on neurological brain functions, then this drive must necessarily have been operating soon after, or possibly before, the emergence of anatomically and behaviorally modern man some time prior to 70.000-50000 years before the birth of Christ. If no trace of drug-seeking appears in the prehistoric past, then the chance of socio-cultural conditioning being the trigger for drug seeking becomes much more likely. The latter could have begun at any time, and many times, in humanity’s existence.

Searching the prehistoric world for people choosing to re-orient their attitudes, thoughts, and emotions to the world outside themselves once appeared a dim and formless task. But not today, with 21st century knowledge that anatomically and behaviorally modern man, emerged far earlier than previously believed. There were differences of course between ourselves and newly emerged humanity. They had radically fewer resources: no written languages; probably very little communication with other groups, let alone other races; little exposure to diverse environments. Their short life spans meant less time to accumulate the number of experiences essential in the formation of wisdom and its transmission to future generations.

But prehistoric people were not the primitive, less-than-fully human creatures of cartoons. They had language, made music, could think logically and abstractly. They were no more superstitious than ourselves. We believe in many things most of have never seen: radio waves, the Virgin Birth; the seething mass of molecules which make up the keyboard beneath my fingers. Somebody cleverer and more authoritative than I vouched for these truths. Likewise, prehistoric people also believed in things they did not understand because wise elders held them to be true.


Sherratt, A. 1995. Alcohol and its alternatives: Symbol and substance in pre-industrial cultures. In J. Goodman, P.E. Lovejoy, A. Sherratt (Eds.) Consuming habits: Drugs in history and anthropology. Routledge: London, New York.

Committee on Opportunities in Drug Abuse Research !996 1996. Pathways of Addiction: Opportunities in Drug
Abuse Research. Institute of Medicine. National Academic Pres: Washington

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The above example is a prototype which has many permutations. One variant has in-coming Europeans seizing control of an indigenous drug, which until this point has been restricted to a small elite class of the prehistoric or near-prehistoric community. Europeans then proceed to make the drug secular and available to the whole population. Over centuries, elite consumers have been indoctrinated with traditional drug control mechanisms. But the bulk of the population have not.  Many become drawn to the drug and its new availability, and the Europeans–the drug traders–gain wealth, power and control. 


The Incas, the Conquistadors and the Erythroxylum coca bush form a gruesome example of the above: one which put tribute into the pockets of Catholic prelates; transformed 10 000 Spaniards into coca plantation owners or administrators less than two decades after conquest, and left thousands of indigenous people condemned into slavery. The cruel and lethal Potosi silver mines are said to be to the 16th century what Auschwitz was to the 20th century.

 Erythroxylum coca  grows on the eastern slopes of  the Andes, and it is the plant source of the stimulant, cocaine. Nobody knows how long people have used coca. But consumption must have begun prior to 4000 BP, because by this time, people were trading the drug  between local regions of the Andes (MacNeish 1977). A story lies here too, but one unknown to me  at present.


Europeans knew nothing of coca prior to the Conquistadors’ Invasion in 1532, and probably only the Inca upper classes chewed coca at that time. All classes of Inca, however, were consuming the drug soon after the invasion.

 The  coca trade was a lucrative one, and some settler coca plantations made 80,000 pesos yearly. However, it was not the cash return which was significant  about coca. Just as alcohol was useful in recruiting labor in ancient Europe, and Afrikaners used alcohol to procure labor and wealth from African miners, the Spaniards used control over coca to manipulate  Peruvians into working in silver mines like Potosi. The silver extracted was the principal source of Spain’s wealth in the New World (Hemming 1983:368; Gutierrez Noriega 1951:146). One of the earliest Spanish commentators, Father Blas Valera had this to say about coca in 1609:

 The great usefulness and effect of coca for laborers is shown by the fact that the Indians who eat it are stronger and fitter for their work; they are often so satisfied by it that they can work all day without eating…It has another great value, which is…the income of the bishops, canons and other priest of the Cathedral Church of Cuzco [the Inca capital city] is derived from  the tithe on the coca leaf [10%] , and many Spaniards have grown rich, and still do on the traffic in this herb.


 A similar situation could well have occurred when the British invaded Australia. The new arrivals occasionally observed hundreds, perhaps  thousands, of  Aboriginal people waiting at desert waterholes for supplies of a drug ‘pituri’ to  become available. The first known white to try this still mysterious substance wrote that it effects on him were like two stiff brandies. In fact, pituri was a nicotine-rich psychoactive substance  which Aboriginal people produced from a desert bush  Duboisia Hopwoodii. Like coca, only the elite individuals could use pituri; in this case revered senior men.

Europeans occupying Aboriginal land along pituri trade routes began to seize supplies of pituri to manipulate blacks. Missionaries swapped pituri for tribal weapons and paraphernalia. Kidman ‘the Cattle King’  (and Nicoles’ ancestor)  used it to ‘ginger up his black workers’  (Farwell 1975:50). Many other references exist of other pastoralists using the drug this way and some Europeans used it themselves (Bancroft 1877:10),  at least one western Queensland hotel served whiskey stiffened with pituri as a ‘knockout drop’ (Coghlon: pers comm).

Perhaps the most bizarre use of pituri occurred during the 1890s. There was considerable public pressure by white Australians against the Chinese and the importing of opium (McCoy 1980:73).  The Chinese cook at Glenormiston Station in the Mulligan-Georgina area (that is in the pituri producing region) seized the opportunity and shipped supplies of pituri to Melbourne  as a substitute (Coghlon: pers com). Despite all this interest, pituri did not ‘take off’ as coca did in Peru and  British settlers missed a commercial opportunity.


MacNeish 1977
Hemming 1983
Gutierrez Noriega 1951
Farwell 1975
Bancroft 1877
Coghlon: pers comm
McCoy 1980

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To re-capitulate, in my post of 15 March 2012  I discussed the fact that the number of psychoactive plants in use in the New World when the Spanish invasion occurred was far greater than the number of psychoactive plants in the Old World; that  is 80-100 in the New World versus 8-10 in the Old World.

Changing economic, social and religious conditions account for this difference, not lack of psychoactive plants in the Old World, according to  Weston La Barre (1979). Visionary shamanism complemented the hunting and gathering life-styles in both Old and New World societies. As long as this life style dominated, wide knowledge and use of drug plants existed. But when societies in Europe and Eurasia turned to farming  in the Neolithic period (the New Stone Age), people of that time found visionary shamanism less valuable or appropriate, and knowledge of psychoactive plants slowly declined. The intolerant fanaticism of Old World religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, added further impetus to the trend. These patriarchal, monotheistic belief systems transformed areas where their values took hold and almost, but not quite eliminated the more ancient visionary shamanism.

In Europe, after the arrival of Christianity, dark and heinous reputations soon shrouded visionary shamanism: another case  of the victor writing the history. Nevertheless, vestiges of shamanistic practices remained, and  emerged as ‘Witchcraft’  in the late Medieval and Renaissance period.

Behind some segments of witchcraft  lay the tropane alkaloids.  These chemicals are found world wide in members of the Solanaceae  plant family  Largely unknown to lay people today,  tropane allkaloids have probably taken out more significant individuals than the Mafia.  They carry esoteric folk names; henbane, deadly nightshade, devils apple, belladonna, mandrake and hemlock.

Tropane alkaloids alter consciousness; but, spook-like, far more. Users get retrograde amnesia. They lose all memory of using the drug and what  happened immediately before that. Tropane alkaloids are also transdermal : you absorb them through your skin. And they are hallucinogenic, but like many hallucinogens, the visions experienced tend to be hallucinogen-specific:  Soul flight, mind –body separation and sensations of flying are typical of tropnane  hallucinogens.

These effects are hallmarks of European witchcraft,’ Would-be-witches mixed the chopped leaves of tropane-bearing plants like henbane, belladonna, mandrake etc into animal fats, making the so- called ‘flying ointment’. Women smeared the greenish paste over their bodies, including the genitals, with a small stick. Loss of consciousness followed almost immediately. Hallucinations flooded their minds together with sensations of flying through space, the original  application stick now their  broomstick.  Users eventually regained consciousness with vivid images of the Sabbat they imagined attending. No memory of their immediate ‘sober’ past remained.

When real Sabbats took place, as opposed to drug-induced fantasies of Sabbats, it was at night, often in the open air at lonely spots. A Grand Master presided; the spirit dwelled in him, and it was worshipped by the participants. Spiritual and social  matters were the agenda  In short, witchcraft ceremonies were examples of classic visionary shamanism that held sway before Christianity attempted to stamp it out.

Although witches and broomsticks may sound slightly humorous today, witchcraft was an important religious, economic and political issue in its time. It is though that the search for scapegoats for political and economic disasters lay beneath the persecution of witches.  Protestant and CatholicChurches alike persecuted them, torturing and killing thousands of people during a 200 year period. Victims were mainly women; in Germany entire populations of them were eradicated in some areas.  Families suffered as did the economy of country villages right across the middle and north portions of Europe ( Harner 1979a:130).



Harner, M 1973a  The role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft’. In  M.. Harner (ed.). Hallucinogens and Shamanism.  Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press. ss

Holinshed, Raphael, 1577. Holinshed’s Chronicles.

La Barre, Weston. 1970a  ‘Old and New World Narcotics:  A Statistical Question and an Ethnological Reply.’  Economic Botany VOL. 24

Sherratt, Andrew. 1995 Consuming Habits: Drugs in History and Anthropology.

Wesson, R. Gordon,  1980  The Wonderous Mushroom,  MacGraw-Hill .

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It it is compelling that, in the first recorded appearance of psychoactive substances in the New World, drug use presents itself as a mechanism used by a population to meet social, economic, and religious needs. Pecos people and their neighbors consumed their drug as a means of confronting the fear and anxiety of the hunt or the war, the economic imperative of locating food in perilous environments, the drive some individuals felt to achieve power, ritual privileges and leadership, and the possible standards ordinary members of society might apply in judging an individual’s capacity for leadership.

Something of comparable value can be said about the use of pituri by pre-European Aboriginal Australians. Although no white knowledge exists of how this population conceptualized pituri use, nor or any significant social-cultural features which linked to pituri consumption, it was obvious to white observers that  people who controlled access to the drug  wielded power over others, and that individuals possessing sufficient surplus of the drug could initiate the annual flow of  complex trading systems. Demand for the drug  was so high that at least one community seems to have responded by an intensified use of land.

Given that both these ancient drug histories illustrate a linkage between drug consumption and economic, political, religious and social goals, could these  patterns be discerned through time?  Probably some of them, I concluded, perhaps enough to establish that frequently drug consumption is culturally useful and appropriate, as well as potentially dangerous.

If  modern accounts of psycho-active substances are added to ethnographic data, to fragmentary evidence from archaeology, information from old pharmacopoeias, the findings from linguistic, botanical, and folkloric studies, and references to drug use  in ancient scripts, what emerges is that societies generally find three major tasks for drug consumption in the socio-cultural area. In the economic and political field, the picture is more complex.  Drug use  is frequently associated  with profound changes in these areas. And in many situations the relationship seems a causal one,  in which those who control access to drugs manipulate supply for their own gain.


Societies and individuals address one or more of three socio-cultural issues with drugs

  •  People employ drugs to facilitate communication  with the ‘supernatural’.  Under this term  I include all those abstract entities,  referred to by  terms such as  god/s,  spirits, deities, religious and heavenly beings, and inspirers of creativity.
  • People consume drugs to create a socially-shared and altered reality in  which structured, differentiated society loosens its hold, creating an ‘anti-structure ‘in which  role playing and hierarchies diminish, human interaction increases, and social bonding occurs.
  • People consume drugs to  create or emphasize an image of themselves or others which is relevant to a particular situation. In this case, use lies along a spectrum from the instrumental to the symbolic

Communication with the supernatural. All societies seek the values of the ideal life and the practices by which these  can be achieved.  Communication with supernatural forces is a means to this end in most ethical/religious systems.  ‘Upwards’ go petitions, prayers, request for help, spiritual offerings, and sacrifice. In return down come advice, warnings, omens, occasional divine  appearances, demands for further human privations such as fasts or quests for enlightenment, plus rewards for virtue and punishment for evil.  In  most parts of  world  societies have,or still do, link this communication with consumption of  mind-altering substances. As mentioned earlier in the post of  March 15th 2012, Paleolithic people living in the Northern Hemisphere employ plant drugs for this reason, as did those first  populations who migrated into North, South and Middle America. At least ten thousand  years elapsed as this pattern of use continued in the Americas alone. Australian Aborigines have a 5, 000 use of pituri in what appears to be  a spiritual connection.

 The archaeologist/anthropologist Andrew Sherratt from the University of Oxford wrote that it can no longer be doubted that drug consumption has been ‘fundamental to human life and is likely to be at least as old as the emergence of Homo sapiens (1995).  Taking this statement as written,  Sherratt is not  claiming outright that drug use and spiritual communication  are as old as humanity. But since drugs alter states of consciousness, drugs by definition allow consumers to transcend ordinary or common experience,  thoughts or beliefs and interrogate alternatives. From an atheistic and humanist perspective, this potentially links drug consumption to spiritual concepts.

Providing a comprehensive account of this association between drugs and religion world-wide is un-achievable, given the vast  number of  instances, the fragmentary nature of the evidence, and the fact that no written  languages existed prior to 5000 BC. Nevertheless,two instances have intrinsic interest: one because  it  is the oldest written record drug use in a religious context; , the second because its probably the last significant bloom of ancient shamanism in European history.  I repeat them below


Perhaps as long ago as 4 000 B.P, a  nomadic people calling themselves Aryans spread south-east from their point of origin, finally settling in the Indus valley in what is now Iran. They were patriarchal cattle herders who  spoke Sanskrit, and were the first peoples  to domesticate the horse. Not surprisingly, their religious beliefs and rituals related to cattle and the way of life which herding imposed on them. Intrinsic to their prayers, wishes and rituals was soma, an intoxicating, and now, today, a mysterious, plant substance.  Soma was also a male moon god, perhaps a unique conjunction in mythologyy.  The  insights and pleasures soma  bestowed appear in The Rig Vedas, the oldest literary product of  Hindu religio.n

Thy juices, purified Soma, all pervading, swift as thought, go of themselves like the off-spring of swift mares…

He  [Soma] excites reverence, watches over the herds, and leads by the shortest road to success…

  He makes the sun rise in the heavens, restores what has been lost, has a thousands ways and means of help, heals all, chases away the black skin and gives everything into the possession of the pious Ary

Soma is an example of difficulties faced by researchers seeking information about psycho-active plants in the distant past. For some unknown reason, the Aryans gave up the consumption of soma soon after arriving in the IndusValley. Perhaps they failed to get the plant to grow in their new territory. Consequently nobody today is certain of the plant’s identity.  After decades of studying the issue, R.Gordon Wasson, the ethno-botanist from  Harvard University’s Museum of Botany, argued that soma is the hallucinogenic fly-agaric (Amanita muscaria). This is the mushroom of Alice in Wonderland and other children’s tales, with its red top spotted with white.   Many disagree with Wesson’s conclusion. One caveat is that, during ritual, priests produced a juice from soma,  and this seems unlikely were the latter a mushroom. Other suggestions identify soma with  Ephedra, (the source of the stimulant ephedrine), or fermented mares milk, or haoma,  a chemical found in Syrian rue (Peganum harmala). The secret may never be revealed. Scholars able to translate the Rig Veda usually lack skills in botany, pharmacology and pharmacognosy, and perhaps  miss significant clues to the plant’s identity.

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Margaret Mead and Tobacco Producers has relevance today. First is the question of what part, if any, does time play in a society’s ability to control and integrate drug production and consumption? Integration should be at a level sufficient for the society to continue its life and  vital activities without becoming hostage to drug demand. An opportunity to discuss this point arises because I have two series of posts on nicotine-containing plants: nicotine-in-tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) among the Mundugumor and nicotine-in-pituri (Duboisia hopwoodii) among Australian Aborigines.

In Mead’s account of the Mundugumor, its people have allowed tobacco to become central to the universal tasks the Mundugumor, like all societies,  must accomplish to stay viable. The only route to leadership for the Mundugumor  is by extensive tobacco cultivation. This presents problems in labour and time. The Mundugumor solve the former by capturing foreign (non-Mundugumor) women to work the tobacco fields; the later solution also involves foreign labour: manufactured items like fishing nets, mats, and baskets once woven by the Mundugumor themselves are now outsourced to the grass villages. The time saved allows Mundugumor leaders’ wives more time in the tobacco fields, and men more opportunity to create theatrical spectacles. In turn the latter brings prestige to the leader which brings him more followers, more success in warfare, more wives etc. etc.

Similarly Mundugumor people have allowed tobacco wealth to trigger the timing of initiation rites. Once these were once-in-a-life time events; the whole community participating as young adolescents adopted the role and responsibilities of manhood. Now Mead claims initiations are ‘faddish’,  held  when one or other of the grass villages offers a spectacular cult figure to a Mundugumor leader. The latter then stages initiations into the new rites from which many individuals can be excluded.

Rage jealously and violence  fill Mead’s account of the Mundugumor.  You can understand why. I was left wondering how long it would be before the Mundugumor group imploded. (Note the question of drug legality or illegality as a cause of dysfunction does not arise here.)

My posts about nicotine-in-pituri (Duboisia hopwoodii) among Australian Aborigines run from 3/9/2011 to 13/11/2011. In the hundreds of references to pituri production, exchange/trade, and use which I consulted, there is no suggestion of anger or any of the ill-will that bedevils tobacco production exchange and consumption among the Mundugumor.  It is true that material on pituri suggested Aboriginal people had developed methods of exchanging pituri that differed from customary exchanges among hunter/gatherers; and similarly the scale of pituri involved in distribution also suggested some sort of planned plant manipulation not usually part of this life-style. But these changes do not appear as a source of angst.

Many  differences existed between the two situations of course: pituri was a perennial; tobacco an annual. Mundugumor were horticulturalists, Aboriginal people hunter/gatherers.  The Aboriginal people appear to have had far greater knowledge of the effects of nicotine on human physiology than did the Mundugumor; the former exploited nicotine’s bi-phasic  and trans-dermal qualities but the Mundugumor did not. But I think the salient difference may have been time. Use of nicotine-in-pituri has existed for about 5 millennia (Yen  1993). The Mundugumor experience of nicotine-in-tobacco may be no more than two generations old. That is a  coloe difference, time enough to bring drug demand under control  if the society so desired. .

This argument that the Mudugumor only had tobacco crops for a short while, is a bit circuitous. Mead herself observed  the Mundugumor lacked skill at managing their canoes, and their wives continuously worried about children drowning. This led Mead to believe the Mundugumor had only been resident in their  present river-side site for one or two generations . Villagers confirmed this,  saying they had moved from their  ‘arse ples’ to better their lives.  Taking a generation span as  15 –25 years, the Mundugumor may have arrived at the site which Mead found them some time between 1880s-1900s. So was the tobacco plant already on site, just waiting to be loved?

Possibly. However tobacco was not native toNew Guinea. After its enthusiastic ‘discovery’ by Christopher Columbus in 1492  the plant spread rapidly outwards from South America.  Because tobacco is addictive, sailors and travellers carried tobacco seeds with them. At every port of call they distributed seeds freely, ensuring they themselves were always able to replenish supplies. South American tobacco reached New Guineain the 1500s, along with Europe and almost everywhere else ships could drop anchor. But the plant did not  really get established as a crop inNew Guinea because of the hostile terrain and climate.

I think a likely scenario is that tobacco and the incoming, soon-to-be,  Mundugumor population arrived  together on the Yuat River,  At that time, the later half of the 1800s ,New Guinea  was wide open to outsiders.  Europeans arrived to administer, missionaries came searching for souls; adventurers looking for adventure; groups slogged through the terrain prospecting for gold and minerals, plantation enthusiasts searched for potential commercial crops.  In the time frame in question, 1880-1900,  Germans  and British/Australian  groups were both on  Yuat River and grass villages, presumably with indigenous porters, guides etc. I think one or other of these expeditions brought tobacco seeds with them, sowing them  together with copra (coconuts) where ever they visited. Only on the one patch of  high well drained soil in the region, the Mundugumor site, did tobacco grasp hold and flourish.  For some reason, the Europeans left the isolated and malaria-riven site. Their indigenous companions may have remained on what must have seemed to them a godsend: empty, fertile, well-drained land in an otherwise inauspicious region.

The newly arrived Mundugumor were drug naïve. They had no reason to think of tobacco as any different from taro, yams and sugarcane they already possessed: just another plant they could grow, eat and exchange/trade with one another and with the grass villages. In fact tobacco was addictive and initial use promoted further use. Demand must have increased exponentially in the 30 to 50 years which passed in Mundugumor before Mead arrived.  The decisive question is, could tobacco use have become so entrenched and the society so socially and economically disrupted, in only 30 to 50 years?

I can only speculate here.  Since tobacco took only about 50 years to spread from outwards from South America round much of the globe, it seems possible for tobacco to have the impact it did in Mead’ s   Mundugumor over the 30-50 years before Mead arrived.


My analysis of the role of tobacco in Mead’s account of the Mundugumor is the second issue which I believe resonates today. Mead was a pioneer in human rights and feminism. She always argued that patterns of racism, sexism, warfare, and environmental exploitation were learned behaviour and could be changed by discussion. Her capacity to educate the American public in these areas was exceptional. Therefore her description of the Mundugumor in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies came as a shock.  Why was she so harsh and judgemental? She was even more outspoken with friends, referring to the Mundugumor as disorganized and dysfunctional, with an  increase in complexity of life that made their society unworkable (Young 1993).

A few individuals commented that Mead had lost her fine ethnographers’ eye;  others mentioned the stress marriage breakdowns cause when both partners are doing field work together. But I do not think the fault lay with Mead. I think this is another example of society’s values  determining knowledge,  a theme in my blog.

Mead was possibly as naïve about drugs as the Mundugmor.  It was 1932 when she did her research: drug consciousness among English-speaking and European peoples did not really begin until 30 years later with the adoption of a large range of psychoactive substances among US students.  Tobacco itself was not considered addictive until the later decades of the 20th century.  I think Mead’s descriptions of the anger and breakdown of Mudugumor life were probably correct.  Her error lay in believing the three societies was comparable. Actually there were only two comparable societies, both  producing vegetables, carbohydrates and fruit; and one society focusing on producing and

consuming a highly addictive drug.   Mainly because of the time period, Mead lacked the background to recognize an ‘Acapulco on the Sepik’.



McDowell, Nancy 1991   The Mundugumor: From the Field Notes of Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune. Smithsonian Institute Press.

 Mead, Margaret. 1963  [1935]   Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.  New York; William Morrow.


 Michael Young 1993   A Review:  The Mundugumor: From the Field Notes of Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune. Pacific Studie, Vol16 No.4

in Pacific Studies Vol 16 No 4

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The lower Pecos may not be the earliest place in the Americas where people utilized psychoactive drugs, but to date, it is the earliest evidence of drug use in the New World. As in ancient Egypt, in Pecos caves the dry desert air desiccated organic objects like wood, food, mescal bean, bone (lower rodent mandibles) woven objects (ritual basket), and cave paintings. The caves’ situation high up on cliffs removed any damage of water from flooding rivers below. Consequently, some remnants ofPecos actions and values remained for us to contemplate. Other in-coming Siberian peoples must have settled, searched and discovered replacements for the drugs they had used in their past homes, but conditions favoring preservation of their culture and their drug use did not exist,

FromPecos(and similar but unknown places) knowledge of visionary shamanism diffused outwards. As people gradually settled throughout  North Central, andSouth Americathey kept their ancient emphasis on shamanism. But the settlers needed additional pharmacognostic research.  Mescal bean itself grew only in a small area. Settlers moving beyond mescal bean’s natural distribution pattern  needed to continuously identify local psychoactive substances which would permit shamanic rituals, and hence community sustenance.

Their experimentation proved successful. By the time Europeans arrived, native Americans were utilizing between 80-100 psychoactive substances in a ritual context. In contrast, inEuropein the same period, people employed only about eight to ten psychoactive plants: alcohol (which is made from plants ) opium, a number of  tropane-containing plants (those ubiquitous true hallucinogens falsely suspected of being the active ingredients in pituri), and cannabis. Small ritual vessels found in rich burials in Bronze AgeBritainand elsewhere suggest to the archaeologist Sherratt that people may have burned and then inhaled not only cannabis but other mind-altering plants as yet unidentified

The anomaly of people utilizing more psychoactive plants in the New World than they did in the Old World intrigued many scholars including Richard Evans Schulte, an ethno-botanist and the recognized authority on New World hallucinogens, and Weston La Barre, a leading anthropologist in the fields of religion and psychology. Together, they posited that the reverse situation would be far more credible; that is, Old World societies should be utilizing more kinds of psychoactive plants than theNew Worldpeoples used.

The Old World has a greater land mass, a flora at least as rich and varied as theNew World, and probably the same number of hallucinogenic plants. Moreover, people have existed in parts of theOld Worldonwards since the time of proto-humans (that is, millennia before the emergence of Homo sapiens about 70 000 years ago). Consequently,Old Worldsocieties have had untold time to explore their environment and identify many mind-altering substances. Yet there is presently little evidence of this beyond the meager eight to ten plants already known.

Schultes and La Barre  speculated about this anomaly. They decided that  economic, social and religious changes account for the difference. Visionary shamanism complemented the hunting and gathering lifestyles which originally existed in both the Old and New World. As long as this lifestyle dominated, wide knowledge and use of drug plants existed. But when societies in Europe and Eurasia turned to farming in the Neolithic period—which began in varied times in varied places some time after 10 000 BPE and before about 2 000BPE—people of that time found visionary shamanism less valuable or appropriate, and knowledge of psychoactive plants slowly declined. The intolerant fanaticism of Old Worldreligions, particularly Christianity and Islam, added further impetus to the trend. These patriarchal, monotheistic belief systems transformed areas where their values took hold and almost, but not quite, eliminated many drug-using Old Worldcommunities.  However, when Christianity arrived in the Middle and South Americasin the 15th century, it attacked drug-related shamanism but it lacked the force to significantly defeat it. Consequently, a pharmacopoeia of useful psychoactive plants remained within the public domain.

What is ironic is that Catholicism, which had helped destroy visionary shamanism, itself ensures that the structural link between the supernatural and the psychoactive continuously repeats itself acrossEuropeand beyond.  In the Mass, the priest miraculously changes the psychoactive alcohol (wine) into the blood of Christ; The priest  drinks the chalice of  Christ’s blood; and under its authority the priest bestows Christ’s blessing on his people. The priest delivers a sermon to the congregation which outlines and interprets Christ’s suffering for, and affirmations to, humanity, and, in turn, humanity’s obligations to Christ. Even suffering exists as a mutual ingredient. The shaman usually displays the effects of the toxic drug used: tremors, vomiting, spasms or loss of consciousness etc.  These validate the shaman, and are taken as his willingness to suffer to aid others.

The ancient link between psychoactive substance and religion resonates today, I believe. The connection between wine and the Blood of Christ is so momentous and intrinsic to Catholic beliefs and ritual, that the Church finds it impossible to classify alcohol as just one psychoactive substance among many. Hence, its continuous use of the phrase ‘alcohol and drugs’ particularly damaging inVaticanhealth directives to medical professionals.

Another echo of the supernatural/drug linkage appears in the ‘drug-active/ people-passive’ construction. There can be no doubt than in the ancient past, chance encounters between individuals and psychoactive plants must have awed the accidental user. Drug plants which seemed to conjure up supernatural beings and altered consumers’ minds and emotions quite naturally appeared active and powerful in respect to humans. This may explain how the concept began that drugs could ‘alter’ behavior, ‘cause’ mishaps, ‘ruin’ judgments, etcetera..


Finally, an irony:  Despite the United States’ intolerance of psychoactive drugs, except psychoactive alcohol, theUnited Statesincludes inTexasthe area where people had continuously consumed the same drug (mescal bean) for longer than any one psychoactive drug has been consumed elsewhere.


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