Archive for the ‘Association between drug use &inter-regional trading systems’ Category

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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The theme in most of my previous posts have been the social, economic, religious, and/or political changes which arise in prehistoric communities when they begin producing and/or trading drugs. The  changes experienced are never identical, always  reflecting  the existing cultural and economic life of each drug-hosting community. For example, in polygamous tribal societies, control over drugs may provide advantages in marriage arrangements, resulting in a larger domestic labor force  and increased production. Where visionary shamanism is integral to food procurement; and drugs are integral to visionary shamanism;  drugs are again playing a significant economic role although the dynamic is different.

To date, except for four or five recent posts, all communities I have described have been prehistoric. However another situation also exists which produces profound economic social and political changes for prehistoric communities. This is drug trading between an established, literate, drug-using country and one that is drug-naïve, with a poor and isolated population, and only a few, if any, educated individuals; that is, a community still struggling to emerge from the prehistoric stage. What happens is: members of the drug-controlling group introduce novel and powerful psychoactive drugs to the prehistoric group. As a result the prehistoric community becomes addicted, and concentrates time and resources on some aspect of drug consumption instead of customary activities. This dislocates the status quo, reallocates time and resources, creates new elites and re distributes power.

It is easy to think here of the flow of cocaine and heroin from Third World countries into Europe and the Anglo-sphere; the consequent economic, legal and political effects the latter experienced, and the negative moral values which developed. That is not my topic; I am writing here of an earlier period, the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. During this time period many European countries including England, France, Spain, Germany, and Portugal (in what ever political format these peoples belonged to at the time) pushed psychoactive substances onto prehistoric populations. The European aim was economic gain and a toe hold in what might, and often did, become European colonies.

This happened whether the drugs were CNS (Central Nervous System) stimulants like coca and kola, depressants like alcohol  opium, and kava, or bi-phasic drugs like the nicotine-rich pituri and tobacco.

The historian Van Onselen (1976) argues that the role of alcohol became particularly important in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the time  there was no way no way of  storing agricultural surpluses which often occurred in Europe as the  result of  local conditions, such as land distribution or technological innovation. However a solution existed. Over the centuries  Europeans had gradually learnt how to distill alcohol from carbohydrates. Instead of allowing excess  crops to rot as once happened, communities began turning surplus agricultural produce, whether potatoes  or grain, into spirits.  But a further problem became evident. A great glut of grain and potato crops occurred in Europe in the latter half of the 19th century and it was not always possible to sell the  surplus of crop-based spirits.

The spirits producers turned to the captive colonial markets,  particularly black indigenous Africans  By the 1880s, the Boer farmers who had settled in the Transvaal were turning surplus grain into alcohol and  accumulating capital by its sale in modest local markets. With the discovery of gold, the population grew enormously.  The owners and managers of the mines found  alcohol useful in recruiting and holding tribal  African workers.  The importance of liquor in this regard was consciously recognized; indeed, talk about possible total prohibition caused the Standard  and Diggers’ News (1892, quoted in Van Onselen 1976:50) to  warn its readers in an editorial that it

 [it is the liquor trade alone] that ensures the [mining] Fields a labor supply.  Constrict it, and the Rand’s real troubles will begin.

Liquor canteens became good recruiting centers for Africans workers from the colony of Mozambique.  Perry, manager of the mine owners’ recruiting agency, noted that Mozambique miners were ideal in that they spent their money on alcohol rather  than on cattle, and that periods of work resulted, not in a  return to their rural homelands, but in drunkenness and idleness.  The consequence was a return to mine work in  order to have the means to buy more liquor.

Initially, rural Afrikaners and the mining capitalists formed an alliance.  Miners needed the liquor to  recruit and hold their workers.  The rural producers and the  distillery needed the African miners to convert the grain  surplus into capital. So mine executives served on the  Board of the Distillery, and rural Afrikaners owned mine  shares.  And at a lower level, some mine managers held the  liquor licenses at local canteens, and miners were partly paid with alcohol.

Nevertheless, a contradiction arose.  The time came  when miners were consuming large quantities of local spirits  plus imported German potato spirits.  Quite aside from the  effects this had on African health and family life, it  lowered work productivity.  On any one day, between 15 and  25 percent of the laborers were unfit for work. And  when mining  management found it necessary to switch from open cut to the  more demanding deep mining, a sober  and careful labor force became essential.

Mining management no longer found liquor useful.   African drinking became a moral issue, and mining companies  achieved a total prohibition of alcohol sales to African  workers.  However, this was at the cost of a break in the  formal alliance between mine executives and Afrikaner rural  power. And despite total prohibition, sales continued to  Africans because alcohol production had not been prohibited, but only its distribution.

While prohibition discouraged about 50 percent of the  small retailers, at the same time it enormously increased  the profit of those defiant enough to continue selling.   Sales were aided by police corruption and by the presence of  another ethnic group, East European Jews.  Earlier  immigrants of this origin had been fairly successfully  integrated into Transvaal life.  Indeed, they had  accumulated capital themselves through distilling and  retailing alcohol.  However, those who came in the 1890s had  far fewer opportunities, and eventually they found  employment with illicit liquor syndicates.

These syndicates provided African miners with vast  quantities of spirits, and alcohol consumption continued to  be a source of irritation and unnecessary cost to the mine owners and to the foreign capital invested in the mines.  Eventually war broke out between the Boers and Britain. British administration closed the Distillery, East European  Jews were deported, the illicit liquor syndicates were  smashed, and the wages of African miners reduced.  Thus, foreign capital interests in South African mines were secured, and mining capitalism became the dominant force in  South African economy.

The historian Van Onselen (1976) argues that the above account is an example of general processes occurring elsewhere. Because of alcohol’s acceptability, the drug’s production and  distribution became important in the transition from declining, agriculturally- based, feudal regimes in Europe to early  capitalism and, accompanying this, to the expansion of  European imperialism.


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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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The Sepik River basinbecame the general area within which Mead  selected three societies to investigate links between sex and temperament. While each society would be unique in terms of culture, they would be similar in life styles: ‘primitive’ tribal people living in permanent homes and cultivating small mixed gardens.  Stone and wood technology would shape their material lives.

Mead arrived in the Sepik River Basinsociety of the Mundugumor  people in late 1932 with her colleague and husband Reo Fortune. Three years before the couple’s arrival, the Australian  Administration outlawed war, headhunting and cannibalism.  Mead noted (1963[1935]:167),’ Mundugumor life stopped dead, like a watch of which the mainspring is broken’. Mead decided her account would be ‘the life as it had been lived up to three years before we came to the people’ (Mead 1963:167).   Accordingly, her material is not the result of direct  observation as is customary with anthropologists, but a reconstruction of what went before and passed through several heads and mouths before her own.

Mead found about a thousand Mundugumor people living in four villages on opposite sides of the swift  flowing Yuat River. The villages had a monopoly of land which was both high and fertile This was exceptional: all the land for many miles around  was a vast grass land swamp. The Mundugumor lived in huts made from sago palms. Each family had near-by a garden of fruit and vegetables and at least three tree crops: coconuts, betel nut and sago palms. Some of the families also had tobacco plots. The river provided plentiful fish. The rain forest near-by offered (for free) varieties of game, wild foods and spices; ochres and feathers for rituals; timber for musical instruments, for house and canoe building, and for fashioning spears and shields for head hunting and cannibalism.

All the material culture items Mundugumor people needed in their daily lives they got  by trading their tobacco to the miserable half-starved ‘grass’ villages who surrounded them: items of fishing technology like nets, lines and canoe paddles; baskets of all sizes, cooking pots; sleeping baskets, floor mats etc. Once the Mundugumor had made their own implements. Now they preferred to outsource their needs. They claimed this gave their  men more time for theatrical spectacles and head hunting, and the women longer periods of toil in their husband’s tobacco gardens (Mead 1963:171).  And see figure below) Nevertheless the Mundugumor appreciated the possible conflict of interests that could arise. They were careful, they told Mead, not to eat those villagers who supplied essential items like mosquito nets.

Mundugumor power and plenitude did not produce a peaceful, united society. Instead it was a competitive one. Mundugumor men and women alike were violent and aggressive: ‘actively masculine, virile and without any of the softening and mellowing characteristics we are accustomed to believe are inalienably womanly’ (Mead:1963:236) Sons were alienated from fathers,  brother stood against brother and step brother, neighbours distrusted one another .

Mead explains this by an absence of factors among the Mundugumor that might have softened the brutality. The Men’s House, found everywhere else in PNG, no longer existed.  Male initiations had lost their traditional meaning. They were no longer an enriching event with their community witnessing young males being admitted to manhood. Instead initiation had become a faddish event.  Occasionally some leader would decide to ‘import’ a foreign religious figure, and this required every male to be initiated into the new cult (Mead 1963:175) See figure. This split the villagers.  Not every man chose to under go an additional initiation, and not every man was given the opportunity.

Then their was the issue of descent. Normally everywhere, this occurs through the father, the mother, or both parents. What Mead describes in action among the Mundugumor in 1932 is unique: daughters belong to their father’s line of descent and sons to their mother’s. Consequently in a large polygamous family of husband, four  wives and their children, five lines of descent would exist. within the same household. In Mead’s time about two or three of every 100 men achieved polygamous marriages.  Achieving this ideal caused intense arguments within marriages.

Tobacco lay at the center of these disputes. Mead claimed that a mans only chance of power and prestige lay in having extensive tobacco fields and enough wives to work them. (Mead 1963: 191)But obtaining a wife among the Mundugumor required brother sister exchanges. So any man wanting a wife, or another wife, needed a sister to marry the brother of his future wife. Consequently men struggled to control the disposition of their sisters, while fathers  attempted to manipulate their daughters; each male in the polygamous family aiming for greater tobacco production, more wealth and prestige and swelling  numbers of followers, etcetera.


Figure 1.The flow of tobacco through Mundugumor society in 1932 as described by Margaret Mead in her book Sex and Temperament in a Primitive Society.

To recapitulate,  Mead’s research interest in New Guinea reflected an anthropological theme  prominent in her early work( 1924-1935). Was culture more  influential in human behaviour than  biology?   Did  males and females have the characteristic temperament recognized in  United States culture  as ‘typically’ male and ‘typically’ female because biology determined these traits? Mead believed not. In her mind, a society’s values, its world view, its history, its environment etc, would determine whether bold and assertive behaviour attached to males; or to females; or to neither; or both.   Mead chose to research this question in three separate ‘primitive’ and tribal horticultural groups in the Sepik River Basin of Papua New Guinea.  In  the Mundugumor Mead found a violent aggressive people:  men and women alike being masculine and without softness or tenderness. From Mead’s  point of view,  Mundugumor society had standardized the temperments of  both men and women in the same mold. This was a plus for Mead’ s hypotheses.

I believe Mead was recording something different, a process rarely described:  the collapse of a society whose values and social structures are being eroded away–almost by chance–because  their community happens to possess a regional monopoly of tobacco in a region which craves it.

My next post examines the relevance of Mundugumor tobacco use for contemporary questions about drugs.

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Range of the Plains Indians at the time of European contact (source: Wikipedia).

Although the advent of the Spanish caused the destruction of Pecos society, Plains Indian tribes, the Apache, Comanche, Iowa, Kansa, Omaha, Pawnee, and others had already adopted use of mescal bean and visionary shamanism from the Pecos River societies.  Cowboy and Indian movies of the 1930s and 1940s drew ispiration from  these tribes from the plains of middle USA;  strong nosed-people with magnificent feathered war ‘bonnets’, tee-pees, peace pipes; and often fresh scalps swaying and dripping from the bridles of their horses.  Most Plains Indians were hunters and warriors with a horse-based culture. A  few were horticulturalist, and a few mixed the two strategies.

How and when  mescal bean shamanism diffused into Plains Indian groups is unknown . But by 1539, Plains Indian tribes had captured Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish ‘hidalgo’ (which at that time meant a member of the Spanish aristocracy or gentry).  He became a  Christian slave among the warring tribes. In one comparatively happy period in the Texas/Mexico region, Cabeza de Vaca  survived as a ‘neutral merchant’ His diary notes exchanging, among other things… ‘fruit like a bean which the Indians value very highly, using it for a medicine and for a ritual beveridge in their dances and festivities’.  Richard Evans Schultes, a prominent ethno-botanist and the recognized authority on New World hallucinogens identified Cabeza de Vaca’s  ‘bean’  as  mescal bean (Sophora secundiflora) .

White observers from the  17th century onwards centuries left brief accounts of visionary drug use among Plains Indian tribes. Many reports contain description of dress, body decorations and other items coinciding with material items occurring in the paintings, made thousands of year earlier. For example, the fur skins worn over the arm appear in both cave paintings and early white reports. Even the ritual basket’s rodent jaws shed their weirdness and gain authority: to test the depth of  the  shaman’s trance.

 This [Pawnee Deer] society teaches that all animal powers were learnt through the power of the mescal bean. Tea made from mescal beans by a definite formula is given to the candidate, and when he falls unconscious, the leader tests him by rasping down his spine with the toothed jaw of the gar-fish; if he moves or flinches in the least, he is rejected [sic] once for all [my emphasis] (Campbell) 1958

  [a] small red bean, which produced a violent spasm, and finally unconsciousness, this condition being indicated by the ability of the novice to suffer pain when the jaw of a gar-pike was drawn over his naked body (Weston La Barre) 1957: 708-711

Still unsolved though, is the meaning of the one right mandible in the ritual basket among ten left mandibles. Was it simply an error? Or could it perhaps have been a focal point of the procedure?

These early reports are fragmented, often unsure of whether the psychoactive drug used is nicotine, peyote or mescal bean–all of which Plains Indian tribes used at one time or another.  Most reports focus on ‘vision quests’. This is an individual’s search for a guardian-spirit which bestows power on the individual.  In a sense, this is the seeker inducting himself into adulthood, and the event is remembered as a major one  in life.  The novice employs a psychoactive drug to achieve a vision. Additional methods of altering the state of consciousness often accompanied drug use: fasting,  purification , isolation, and sometimes forms of body mutilation.  Once attained, the dream or vision could result in the novice gaining in power, status, knowledge or ritual privileges, but only if the novice could demonstrate in action the strength and usefulness of his vision for himself and the community. (Albers and Parker 1971).

The vision quest appears little different from shamanism, except perhaps that it is a young man seeking the vision, rather the older men who usually function as shamans.  However, no first hand observations of Pecos shamans existed: so the finer points of similarity or difference are obscure.

Vision quests have been a well organised and fundamental part of social behaviour among Plains Indian tribes in the last three or four centuries. In the early 20th century, members of the relatively new discipline of anthropology in the USA began searching and collating early accounts of vision quests for more extensive information of what was obviously an important cultural form.  Ruth Benedict, one of the earliest U.S. anthropologists  wrote from a historical diffusionist point of view in 1922 -1923. Her major contribution was to establish the geographical spread of vision quests and their connections with socio-cultural phenomena such as shamanism and puberty rites. Later anthropologists, like Lowie in 1954,  focused upon the psychological function vision quests possessed for individuals. Lowie believed the quests increased confidence for the individual in his ability to maximize mastery over the environment. Another argument posited that visions produced highly independent and inner directed individuals capable of innovative thought and action . This ties in with  Newcomb’s explaining of the origins and abrupt cessation of cave art as actions possibly ordered by visionary beings. (See earlier post ).

In 1970, when ecological issues became increasingly prominent, Patricia Albers and Seymour Parker took the discussion in a new direction in ‘The Plains Vision Experience: a Study of Power and Privilege’ in The Southwestern Journal of Anthropology.  They argued that ‘variations in the vision quest relate to variations in the social structure and ultimately to ecological variables’. While agreeing that vision quests generally did legitimize status, power and privilege, they argued that circumstances and features of the process depend upon whether a particular Plains Indian societies was predominately hunter/ gatherer, or horticultural, or a mixture of the two  strategies. 

Characteristics of hunter-gatherers like the Comanche and Blackfoot included limited food resources, low member numbers, egalitarianism, lack of food storage facilities, and no possibility of accumulating surpluses. Status position in these groups arose (by the very nature of  hunter-gatherer life-style) from achievement and personal characteristics. Consequently status achievement were open to all males. In these circumstances, assert the authors, personal and private drug-induced visions were of great importance They could not be alienated from the individual or transferred through sale or inheritance, and they legitimized personal abilities and achievement.

In a few Plains Indian societies which were predominately horticultural, the vision quest had a different character. These groups possessed relatively large populations, formal leadership, stable food supplies, and social structures with co-operative and property-owning groups.  Not surprisingly, hereditary perogatives and wealth were important. Vision quests did not disappear, but only special standardized visions found acceptability, and only certain individuals could experience them.  In the Omaha tribe, for example membership in the powerful Buffalo Society required a standardized vision. Devices existed which created a particular ‘set’ of associations surrounding the consumption of mescal bean. Only members of wealthy families became exposed to this ‘set’ of associations. This helped ensure the ‘right’ candidates received the politically correct vision.

Use of mescal bean faded among Plains Indians and other group following the arrival of Europeans, in a similar way as it had earlier with people of the Lower Pecos. That is, the consumers vanished; lost again to ethnic cleansing.  As the United States Government forced more and more of the indigenous population onto reservations often far from their homelands, it became increasingly difficult for Plains Indian groups to obtain mescal bean. Finally mescal bean use ceased, and people from some of the groups who formerly consumed mescal bean, turned instead to using peyote (Lophophora williamsii ) in a religious setting.


In conclusion, I hoped by studying mescal bean in addition to pituri I might be able to highlight missing possibilities: what was done or not  done by one or other of the two drug-using societies. Or conversely, what might—must—have taken place in each society yet went unrecorded by white observers.  What made this assessment possible was as the contextual parallels between the Pecos River people and pituri-using Australian Aborigines.To recapitulate, both groups were desert-dwelling,  hunter-gatherers with sparse and isolated populations. For both, their socially-sanctioned drug use pre-dated European settlement by thousands of years. Both socially sanctioned drugs were toxic and in both communities, (but for different reasons) European contact terminated consumption of their drug. 

I am not claiming here that mescal bean and pituri accounts could or should reveal similarities in the ways the host countries used the two drug, or culturally envisionaged them; or controlled their use; or traded and distributed the two drugs. Not at all. Even with similarities between them, separate cultures display many differences. My point is the existence of so many contextual parallels identifies the potentials available for drug–using prehistoric, desert-based, hunter-gatherers.   When these potentials appear unexploited,  is it because the data was not picked up?

Details of pituri production and trading are ample, even over half a million square kilometres of desert land; thanks to the inquisitive doctor, mounted policeman, store keeper and others. But other than Cabeza de Vaca’s brief account, nothing remains of a 12 000 history of  producing or harvesting or distributing mescal bean. This is true even for the Plains Indian period when concrete facts were probably still accessible to researchers. This is a pity. The seminal concept of Stone Age Economics by Marshall Sahlins was that, universally, stone age trade differed from that of historic periods.  Sahlins gave two exceptions: one was Aboriginal trading in the psychoactive substance, pituri. This, claimed Sahlins, was more like free-market auctions. Sahlins apparently did not examine other prehistoric drug trade. Consequently it is unknown if the pituri pattern of trading was an aberration or a foreshadowing of the social, political economic changes drug trading brings to industrial societies today.

A record of pharmacognosy activity marks pituri history. Again this is largely absent in the mescal bean account–even in its modern  anthropological context of vision quests. The cultural determinist perspective of those times believed drugs had no effect  human biology unless the users’ culture taught that it did. So it is not suprising that no anthropologists linked mescal bean to the altered state of consciousness in which the vision is situated  However, the anthropology research also creates the idea  that the Plains Indians themselves did not link mescal bean use to visions to any significant degree. I think the latter is unlkely. Soon after the ancient population settled on the Lower Pecos River, they had experimented with their local environment to find a drug which would profoundly alter consciousness (Weston La Barre and Richard Evens Schultes). Given the toxicity of mescal bean, many deaths probably occurred during this early period. This must have ensured a strong learning curve and search for moderating actions or antitodes to mescal bean. The poisonous Ungnadia specio, found in both the ritual basket and throughout the archaeological sites may have acted as an antitode to the toxic bean rather than being a dart (arrow) poison as someone suggested.

But in other fields mescal bean activity bequeths a greater horde of riches than do the reports on pituri. Consider the evidence: the existence of drug-related shamanism in the Siberian homeland from which people had migrated to Pecos River; the 12 000-10 000 years presence of mescal bean presence in the archaeological excavations in Pecos;  the cave paintings widely believed to represent shaman-assisted hunting; and the fact that after invadors wiped out Pecos River people, Plains Indians observers record mescal- bean based visions and the role thay played in the achievement of authority and status; all these establish that drug use effected social, religious, and political contexts for millenia.  Although mescal bean was very toxic and probably caused some deaths, for a change this is drugs as ‘the good guys’ , their use helping populations to achieve life-enriching goals.

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Prehistoric Drug: Modern Relevance

 Pituri is an example of the usefulness and validity found in studying prehistoric drugs.  Firstly, it demolishes two drug stereotypes: the idea that alcohol is the only psychoactive substance capable of occupying a central place in the economic, political, religious and social life of human beings, and, in the same vein, the concept that drug use among ‘primitive’ or prehistoric  people is primitive, set about by mystery and flummox, and haphazard controls over use.

 Pituri use among Aboriginal people was never a brief enthusiasm, a sudden chance development. It was a 5 000 year commitment (Yen 1983). Aboriginal people embedded their cultural values and their social structures in managing all aspects of this psychoactive drug.  Restrictions over knowledge—a cultural feature in continent-wide Aboriginal societies—bore chiefly on the production process. Knowledge of two critical issues—the specific locations of plants selected and the temperature of the fires employed in the curing process—belonged only to a few revered elders. Both were closely guarded secrets.  Clans from a number of tribes with a pituri totem held the monopoly of pituri distribution, at least at the primary level. The very nature of gerontology—in which revered senior men receive  society’s greatest benefits—acted to limit pituri use and keep it away from all women and younger men, except possibly in the case of male initiation ceremonies.

 Aboriginal people in pituri-producing areas must have experimented extensively with both plant and drug; another testimony to Aboriginal  commitment. The result was great practical knowledge of nicotine in both the plant and in the human body; perhaps particularly in the employment of both stimulant and depressant phases of nicotine use and in utilizing nicotine’s transdermal qualities. It was certainly a wider awareness than the incoming British colonials possessed after four or five centuries of exposure to the nicotine in tobacco—in fact,  more than the average smoker has today.

 Another reason to access prehistoric drug use is that it increases our knowledge base. Many concerns relating to drug use today, can be glimpsed ‘acted out’ in prehistoric societies. For example, issues relating to social and economic transformations accompanying drug production and trade, questions about whether legalising drugs would diminish the problems supposedly caused by illegal drugs, and whether demand or supply predominates in initiating drug trading.

Pituri history suggests that, at least sometimes, it is the nature of the drug itself that causes social and economic dislocation rather than the drug’s legal/illegal status. Insufficient information exists about pituri production to form firm conclusions, but certainly the amount of the drug pituri in circulation seems far in excess of what natural growth patterns of Duboisia hopwoodii plants would allow. This suggests that Aboriginal people intensified pituri production in some way, perhaps by manipulating the root stock.  A significant event: ‘plant intensification’ is a buzz word for anthropologists, paleobotanists,  archaeologists and others. It signals that a population may  be beginning a transformation away from hunter/gathering life-styles to horticulture.

Pituri trade too displayed increasing complexity. Exchange of goods among  hunter/gatherers everywhere had been widely researched. Almost invariably, the pattern is one in which known partners exchange goods with one another, and the relationship between the two men is of more significance than what is exchanged. Marshall Sahlins, at the time Professor of Anthropology atUniversityofChicagoand doyen of this field (1974:299) claims of  Aiston’s account ofLake Eyreexpeditions to the north to gain pituri north :

The nearest documented approach to open market trading appears to be on the one hand, a kind of auctioning, involving competition within the demand party only, as testified in certain Eskimo and Australian material  (Sahlins 1974:299).  

 ‘Open market trading’ is a large departure from hunter/gatherer norms. But note also the reference to ‘ competition within the demand partly only’. This is additional to the other references given in a previous post to pituri initiating trade.

Finall, a recent publication Ochre and Rust (2007) by Philip Jones, anthropologist and Senior Curator at theSouthAustralianMuseum provided me with a new insight. Aiston’s account ofLake Eyre expeditions has members taking with them 70 pound cakes of  special red ochre ‘the vital ingredient’ without which pituri could not be obtained. On first reading Aiston I noted the common features of both trade items: their brief ‘shelf lives,’ and  probable community pressure to renew supplies of both. And I realised for the first time that high demand for pyschoactive substances must be problematic for prehistoric communities without a currency.  After all, how many stone axes and emu feathers can a man accept in exchange for drugs? So at the time of reading Aiston,  it was the exchange of psychoactive substances for red ochre that struck me. Red ochre was a means of self/community expression. So it too would quickly need replenishment: a neat solution I thought to the problem posed by addictive drugs in prehistoric exchange.  

But in the recent publication Ochre and Rust, Jones describes this particular red ochre as featuring in an important Dreamtime/Creation story. The ochre was the Blood of the slaughtered Ancestral Emu. Jones claims it was:

a medium or agent of transcendence: from sickness to health, death to renewal, ritual uncleanness to cleanness, the secular to the sacred’

Knowing this, leads me to rethink my opinion that I could find no evidence of shamanism or other rituals attached to pituri.  The latter is still true (I could not find evidence). But Aboriginal people would be most unlikely to exchange a sacred religious icon for something secular. So in my opinion both the pituri and this particular ochre linked together in some vital religious ritual.     


 Jones,  Philip.  (2007)  Ochre and Rust . Adelaide: Wakefield Press.

Sahlins, Marshall. (1974)  Stone Age Economics.  London: Butlerand Tsnner.

Yen, D. E. (1983) ‘Pituri and Prehistory’ [Book Review]  Australian Archaeology, No 17.


My  next few posts examine mescal bean. In my knowledge, this psychoactive substance is unique: it is the drug plant with the longest continuous period of consumption in the one  geographic region.  

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But that raises yet another area of uncertainty. D. hopwoodii plants grew widely but sparsely on the tops of sandhills in the  desert interior. It seems impossible that the plant’s natural pattern of growth could supply enough raw material to support the trade. Unless of course there existed some form of human intervention with the plant. 

This is possible. While it is true that  Aboriginal people were hunter/gatherers many of these groups, world-wide, could and occasionally did,  manipulate certain favored plants to increase their presence in the group’s vicinity. In Australia, some Aboriginal groups ‘farmed with a fire-stick’, burning the landscape to encourage new growth which attracted grazing kangaroos. Alternatively Aboriginal people might manipulate root stock in some way; and very occasionally, a community  sowed seeds. One report claims people burned the older branches of D. hopwoodii bushes. The observer interpreted this as increasing the yield of young green leaves and growing tips which contained the  highest percentage of nicotine. But would this have been enough to supply raw material for the whole trade, or did the observer notice and record only part of a larger process?  Certainly some plant manipulation must have happened to ensure the circulation of a such large amounts of pituri  in the pituri trade.

 Just as big a question, I think, is why  Mulligan-Georgina  pituri  was so sought after in the first place. As I noted above, D. howoodii grew in many places in the desert. though ‘only sparsely’. Some communities recognized their local hopwoodii as the plant basis of pituri, and others such as the Arunta in central Australia   produced a drug from  their local plants. But by far the most valued, the most sought for, and possibly  the mostly costly in terms of human effort, was the pituri made from D .hopwoodii plants growing in the Mulligan-Georgina region.

 Why was this so?  Spiritual values certainly played a significant part, perhaps an overwhelming one. Mulligan-Georgina. D. hopwoodii  plants grew at a site along the path traveled led by one or more of the community’s totemic heroes during the Creation Period (the Dreamtime). So religion and ritual endorsed these plants rather than other plants. But then, why did this not this happen elsewhere where D. hopwoodii plants grew?

 Here, I can offer only speculation. This particular tribal group may have produced a drug with a standardized  level of toxicity. Considerable variation in the range of nicotine and nor-nicotine could be present within members of the same plant species. And there was variation too in the percentages of each alkaloid in  relationship to the other in individual plants. Add to that the facts that nicotine is extremely toxic; that nicotine acts with the speed of cyanide; and that the gap between its maximum dose and its lethal dose is narrow. Clearly it was horrifyingly easy to miscalculate the correct quantity of pituri unless the drug was standardized. An amount of pituri sufficient to sustain  a user on a long desert might,  if improperly calculated, might render the user unconscious or dead. And given the small numbers of Aboriginal people that made up social groups, an occasional death could have larger social consequence for them in terms of food procurement, group viability and inter-tribal relationships, than the death by over-dose of one member might have for other members  in a large industrialised society.

 Standardizing a drug required two procedures, each necessary but insufficient without the other. The first is producing the drug from identical plants.  The second necessary and essential procedure is identical curing methods.  Different curing techniques, even when used on identical material, can produce drugs of different strengths. Web (1950) , a scientist with CSIRO   states that curing alkaloid-containing plants must be a compromise‘where in shade or sun drying, artificial drying at high temperatures, or a protracted period at low temperatures … are all potent factors’  The problem lies with the plant enzymes. Even after harvesting,  the enzymes continue metabolizing (breaking down) the alkaloids (in this case nicotine and nor-nicotine) in the leaves. Therefore the longer the drying time the weaker will be the drug, as the active ingredient continues to decompose until the material is thoroughly dry. Quicker drying with artificial heat would arrest enzyme action, but might also totally destroy the nicotine and nor-nicotine.

The solutions adopted by the pituri clans on the Mulligan-Georgina was the use of plants with already known alkaloid strengths, then careful drying by artificial heat . The last surviving member of the pituri clan of the Wongkongaru described the Mulligan-Georgina curing of pituri to George Aiston, the store-keeper in 1924. The informant was 80-90 years old at the time, and had been on expeditions the Wongongaru sent north to get pituri.  His  account of pituri processing techniques refers well  back to a period before traditional practices fell into decline.

 According to Aiston’s informant, the processing of pituri was accomplished by hereditary pituri clans in a ceremonial context. It was treated as a component of the secret knowledge monopolised by revered old men, and labour was compartmentalised by age and by space: 

The secret of preparation was jealously guarded by the old men; the younger men were only allowed to accompany the party to the water nearest to the small clump of trees that were deemed to he the only true pituri. Here the younger men and the women stayed and prepared the bags to hold the prepared pituri and gathered food for the old men who did the harvesting. The old men went on to the trees, made a camp and built big fires. When these were burning down sufficiently they picked branch tips of the pituri bush, each about twelve inches at most in length. These were placed in a hole formed by taking out the fires down to the hot sand, were left to cook for at least two hours. When the steamed pituri was considered to be sufficiently cooked the sand was raked off and it was placed on a pirra to cool and dry. When thoroughly dry, it was beaten with the edge of a boomerang to break it up; all big twigs were picked out and the clean twigs bagged …

 The great secret lay in the length of time that was needed for the steaming and this was not taught …(to)…the men until their beards were grey. When they were a ‘little bit Pinnaru’, that is, when the grey first showed in their hair and beard they might be allowed to accompany the old men to the picking ground, and would be allowed to fill the bags with the prepared pituri, but the actual cooking was done out of their sight. Sometimes, if the ground was hard, a hole was dug and the fire built in that, sometimes the fire was made close to a sand hill, and the sand was raked down from above. The method varied but the result was the same; too much steaming made the resulting ‘cook’ brittle and tasteless, too little made it musty (Aiston 1937:373 373). 

From a technical point of view,  there is no substitute for information that we might have gained by a chemical analysis of pituri immediately after processing. In lieu of this, the following comments are pertinent. According to Aisto    n the plants were not picked until the fire was at a suitable level. This means that enzyme action probably ceased moments after picking, thus reducing nicotine loss to a minimum. The Aborigines believed, however, that the critical factor lay in the length of time allowed in the steaming process. This accords with western ideas on curing alkaloid-bearing plants.  W. Griffin  the expert on pharmacognosy  I consulted previously, judged :

 ‘that what they have hit upon [that is the pituri clans in the Mulligan Georgina area] is a controlled drying process which from experience was sufficient to retard metabolism and yet insufficient to produce degradation or loss of active  components (pers. comm.).

 If  this is so, pituri made by theMulligan- River- clans would be markedly more ‘user friendly’ in that its level of toxicity—whatever that may have been —would have been consistent. It is also possible that heat-drying broke down unwanted constituents in the leaves, changed odour, or flavours of  components

How long have Aboriginal people used pituri?  Perhaps as long as 5, 000 years, in the opinion of   Professor Douglas Yen, a paleo-ethnobotanist and  Professor of Prehistory at ANU  (AustralianNationalUniversity) . In reviewing my material after its publication in 1983, Yen  suggested that the development of pituri and its trade might slot into the period of social and economic changes in Aboriginal life which began about 5 000 years ago, perhaps coinciding  with stability in sea levels. These changes included adoption of new stone technologies, the development of exchange  (trade) networks  along Dreaming Tracks, changes in the way people organized the land and related to other groups, and more intensified land use.

Inter-regional of pituri certainly belongs with these alterations in life style.  But purely local use of pituri around the Mulligan /GeorginaRiversmay  have been very much older than 5, 000 years.  Indeed the availability of a highly valued and addictive drug plus alterations in methods of exchange recorded Sahlins  may have been the causal factor  for the economic and social changes Yen believes developed around this time.


Complete Pituri Bibliography

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Bancroft, J. 1872 The pituri poison. Paper read before the Queensland Philosophical Society.Brisbane: Government Printer.

1877Pituri. Paper read before the Queensland Philosophical Society.Brisbane: Government Printer.

1878 Further remarks on the pituri group of plants. Paper read before the Queensland Philosophical Society.Brisbane: Government Printer.

1879 Pituri and tobacco. Paper read before the Queensland Philosophical Society.Brisbane: Government Printer.

Barnard, C. 1952 The Duboisias ofAustralia. Economic Botany 6:3. 

Basedow, H. 1925 The Australian Aboriginal.Adelaide: Preece.

Bedford, C.T. 1887 Reminiscences of a surveying trip from Boulia to the South Australian border. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society ofAustralia,QueenslandBranch 2:99.

Berndt, R.M. and C.H. 1977 The world of the first Australians.Sydney: Ure Smith.

Berndt, R.M. 1980Letter to P. Watson. June 1980.

Bottomley, W. & D.E. White 1951The Chemistry of Western Australian plants: Duboisia hopwoodii. Australian Journal of Scientific Research 4:107.

Buckland, A.W. 1879 Stimulants in use among savages. Journal of the Royal AnthropologicalInstituteofGreat BritainandIreland8:239.

Cleland, J.B. 1935 The native ofCentral Australiaand his surroundings. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society ofAustralasia, South Australian Branch 35:66.

1936 Ethno-botany in relation to the central Australian aboriginal. Mankind 2:6.

1940 The ecology of the Aboriginal inhabitants ofTasmaniaandSouth Australia. Australian Journal of Science 2:97.

Coghlon, N. 1980 Interview by P. Watson, May 20, 1980. Tape in possession of author.

Craig, B.F. 1970 North-west-centralQueensland, an annotated bibliography.Canberra: Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies.

Curl, S.M. 1878 On pituri, a new vegetable produce that deserves further investigation. Proceedings of theNew ZealandInstitute 2:411.

Curr, E.M. 1886/7 The Australian race. 4 vols.Melbourne: Government Printer.

Duncan-Kemp, A.M. 1964 Where strange paths go down.Brisbane: W.R. Smith & Paterson.

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