Archive for the ‘Associations between drug use and beginnings of horticulture’ Category

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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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

Aiston, G. 1937 The Aboriginal narcotic pitcheri.Oceania7:372.

Bailey, F. 1883 A synopsis ofQueenslandflora.Brisbane: Government Printer.

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.

1968 Where strange gods call.Brisbane: W.R. Smith & Paterson.

Durack, M. 1976 Kings in grass castles.Sydney: New Century Press.

Elkin, A.P. 1931 The social organization of South Australian tribes.Oceania2:44.

1934/35 Cult-totemism and mythology in northernSouth Australia.Oceania5:171.

El-Zughley 1970 Studies of the effect of reserpine therapy on the functional capacity of the tryptophanniacin pathway in smoker and non smokermales. Biochemical Pharmacology 19:1661.

Evans, R., K. Saunders, K. Cronin 1975 Exclusion, exploitation and extermination.Sydney:Australiaand New Zealand Book Company.

Everist, S.L. 1974 Poisonous plants ofAustralia.Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

Fagan, B.M. 1974 Men of the Earth.Boston: Little Brown & Co.

Farwell, G. 1975 Land of mirage.Adelaide: Rigby Limited.

 Fraser, A. 1901 How the Aborigines about Kalliduararry make rain. Science of Man 3:116.

 Friel, J. (ed.) 1974Dorland’s illustrated medical dictionary. Twenty-fifth edition.Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.

 Furst, P.T. (ed.) 1972 Flesh of the gods: the ritual use of hallucinogens.London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd.

 1976 Hallucinogens and culture.San Francisco:Chandlerand Sharp.

Garber, S.T. 1942. Stedman’s Practical medical dictionary. Fifteenth edition. Baltimore: The William and Wilkins Company.

Gason, S. 1882 Letter to A.W. Howitt, Howitt Papers Box 1052/l(c) MS 9356. La Trobe Library, Melbourne.

Goodman, L.S. & A. Gilman (eds.) 1965 The pharmacological basis of therapeutics.New York: The MacMillan Company.

Greenway, J. 1963 Bibliographies of the Australian Aborigines and the native peoples ofTorres Straitto 1959.Sydney: Angus & Robertson.

Gregory, J.W. 1931 The story of the road.London: Alexander Maclehose and Co.

Hardesty, D.L. 1977 Ecological Anthropology.New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Harner, M.J. 1973 Hallucinogens and shamanism.New York:OxfordUniversityPress.

Harney, W.E. 1950 Roads and Trade. Walkabout 16:42.

Hicks, C.S. & H. Le Messurier 1935 Preliminary observations on the chemistry and pharmacology of the alkaloids of Duboisia hopwoodii. The Australian Journal of Experimental Biology and Medical Science 13:175.

Hicks, C.S. 1963 Climatic adaptation and drug habituation of the central Australian Aborigine. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 7:39.

Higgin, J.A. 1903 An analysis of the ash of the Acacia salicina. Transactions of the Royal Society ofSouth Australia17:202.

Hodgkinson, W.O. 1877 North-west explorations. Parliamentary Paper.Brisbane.

Horne, G. & G. Aiston 1924 Savage life in centralAustralia.London: Macmillan.

Howitt, A.W. 1878 Notes on the Aborigines of Cooper’s Creek. In R.B. Smyth The Aborigines of Victoria App. D. Melbourne: Government Printer.

1904 The native tribes of south-eastAustralia.London: Macmillan and Co. Limited 

Idriess,I.1941 The great boomerang.Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

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Aiston focuses  on the centers  where pituri traded, and the  informality of the exchange (see map).

 The great trade routes that met and crossed at Kopparra murra, the Kopperamanna of the white people, was one of the big distributing centres, although the pituri had probably changed hands several times before it got there. Crowds would be waiting at Annandale, on the Herbert, [that is the GeorginaMulliganRiversystem] for the collectors [of pituri] to come in, and getting as much as they could, would make off to Birdsville. Bedourie, Urandangie, and down the Herbert; here  other people would be waiting to take it down the Diamantina to Goyder’s Lagoon, where others in turn would be waiting, gathered in from east and west, some from as far as the Darling, and in good seasons from the lower Finke. I have seen over 500 Aborigines waiting at Goyder’s Lagoon.

 Bartering started at the first camp that was met after leaving the pituri grounds; after everybody had rested and fed, one of the party would throw down a bag in front of the assembled camp: anyone who wishes to buy would throw down, perhaps a couple of boomerangs, perhaps a grinding mill, or whatever he could spare; the pituri seller would leave his bag until something that he wanted was offered: this he would accept by picking it up and the buyer would then pick up the bag of pituri. Perhaps another member of the pituri party would see something in the goods offered and would throw down another bag; if the buyers were not satisfied they would pick up their offerings, and if the seller was not satisfied he would pick up his bag of pituri. The camps near the pituri grounds never became big markets because the pituri was more valuable the farther away it was traded. The near camps were only used to get enough utensils and weapons for use when traveling in the more profitable markets.

For an anthropologist like myself, Aiston’s  description of pituri trading shocks deeply. In my profession, it is axiomatic that ‘primitive’ trade  is organized quite differently from that of the market place. The relationship between the two traders themselves matters deeply; what is exchanged far less so. Marshall Sahlins, then Professor of  Anthropology at Universityof Chicagowrote in his seminal work, Stone Age Economics

 …trade is an exclusive relation with an outside party. …The trade in canalized in parallel and insulated transactions between particular pairs…social relations, not prices, connect up ‘buyers’ and ‘sellers’

Christmas gift giving in western societies cultures provides a useful analogy for primitive trade.  Here there is a scrupulous graduation of social appropriateness in gifts between parents and children, between adult family members, between family and close non-family friends, right down to possible exchanges between an employer and a valued employee. This celebrates ties to meaningful others, and indicates hope and intention that these relationships will continue. In traditional societies all exchange and trade resembles this pattern, and its adaptive value among of myriad of small, separate groups is evident. It encourages peaceful relationships, and it enlarges the number of individuals or groups  who can be approached in times of need or from whom marriage partners might be sought.

 As if to emphasize the universality of this form of  ‘stone age trade’  Sahlins notes only two exceptions to his generalization: and one is the above account by Aiston of pituri  trading  (?: 298-99)  where haggling, non-partnered exchanges, definite markets, individual traders and something approaching auctions exist when pituri changes hands.  

 The third informant, Walter Roth, practiced medicine in a north-west Queensland. Consequently his account of  the circulation of pituri came from a different geographical location: north of the pituri lands, not south of them as were those of Gason and Aiston. He focuses on the great trading cycles held annually in north-west-central Queensland.  Roth believed these ‘walk-abouts’ in which members of tribal groups rigidly followed certain traditional trade routes’ only began when fresh pituri became available for trade. Roth’s data intrigues with its list of  participating tribes and the items they brought to trade and obtained in return (see previous map). For example:

In the Upper Georgina District, the Yaroinga have trade relations on the north with the Workia, whom they met atLakeNash, Austral Downs. and Camooweal, and from whom they get pearl-shell, eagle-hawk feathers, spears, stone-knives, large koolamons, human hair belts, white-men’s knives, blankets, shirts, trousers, as well as pituri,  koolamons, emu-feathers, etc.

 On the south the Yaroinga are in communication with the Undekerebina natives of the Toko Ranges, who come up to them either direct to Gordon’s Creek, or else indirectly, up the Georgina, via Glenormiston: the Toko people come with pituri, opossum-twine, blankets, etc., and take back ochre, boomerangs. stone-knives, human-hair belts, etc.

Note that  while the pituri trade included some raw materials such bird-feathers and shell, most components in Roth’s descriptions consist of value-added products.  Stone axes, pecked grinding stones, koolamons  (for storage), packaged barley seed and fish flour, for example,  possessed an added labour component. These low technology trade items were fore-runners of many goods listed on today’s stock exchange: minerals (ochres and gypsum) a mind-altering drug (pituri)  weapons, (spears and shields) prestige items (eagle feathers and human hair belts) food technology items (koolamons and pecked grinding stones), food and even fast food (barley seeds and fish flour).  The  rights to preform particular songs and corroborees passed along these routes too. The songs and dances etc. were not important ritual ones, but often a type of commentary on singular and secular matters, sometimes amusing ones.

 A high demand for pituri  existed. Roth claimed that the  presence of pituri was a precondition for the commencement of the great trading cycles in northwest-centralQueensland. Aiston hints at the same thing with his remark ‘crowds would be waiting for the collectors [of pituri ]to come in.’ According to Roth, ‘local Blacks will give anything they possess for it from their women downwards’. Others made similar comments:

The pituri is an extensive article of trade among the Blacks, the happy possessors being able to obtain in exchange for it any article dear to the Aboriginal heart from their less fortunate black brethren (Bedford 1887:111).

 It (pituri) was and still is among the remnants of theDiamantinatribes the ‘gold’ standard for exchange or barter purposes. A seventy-pound bag of un-dried pituri leaf spelt untold wealth. The Murranudda and messmate tribes bartered spiritedly for bags of it and used it as currency among less fortunate messmates. The small oval bags made of human hair. containing a couple of pounds of the plant, bought two wives, husbands or many goods (Duncan Kemp 1964:284).

 Given that demand was high, how much pituri was in circulation?  This is hard to know. dGason stated that each expedition member returned home carrying 701bs (32kg) of the drie. packaged drug. A large pituri basket in the QueenslandMuseumis looks compatible with loads of this size The drug observed by Gason was packaged in 3 lb containers.  Gason had only to count the containers and multiply by three to arrive at a figure of 70 1bs per person.

Although I saw no reason to question Gason’s figure of 70 lbs of pituri per person, a feeling of uncertainty arose when trying to calculate the number of quids. The historical record speaks of the quantities used as ‘a good pinch’. ‘a spoonful’, ‘a walnut sized piece’. Experimenting with loose tobacco, I estimated that one dose consisted of about the same volume of material as that existing in two cigarettes. This means that the number of quids in 701bs would be about 32,000 [re-check math]. This seems a large number in view of Gason’s report that supplies became exhausted after some months, even granted that a further distribution to tribes in the south took place.

Perhaps there is some mistake in my calculations. Certainly, there is much missing information here. The  size of the pituri expedition obviously determined how much pituri  went south with the returning Dieri.  But no one thought to record how many men made the trip. Gason states elsewhere that 80 Dieri men went annually on the long  journey south for the special ochre which they then used in exchange for pituri. This means that the tribe was able to mount an expedition of this size, not of course that it did. Assuming then, that expedition members numbered somewhere between ten and eighty, the weights of pituri carried home would range between 320kg and 2560kg. These figures, however, represent dried material. What was the  weight of fresh material needed to produce these dried weights ?. Again, that is unknown, but it must have been very much larger.  

And these figures pertain just to the amount of pituri the Dieri men acquired.  However  history records that  the Wonkonguru  (Aiston 193 7:3 7 2) and Yantruwanta (Howitt 1904:7 11), also undertook pituri expeditions to the Mulligan in the same period of time. Perhaps others tribes did too. Additionally there are the large numbers  getting Mulligan-Georgina pituri in the bartering process at regional centres: ‘up to 500’ Aiston describes at one gathering place. And it is quite likely that the distribution of pituri over Queenslandand parts of the Northern Territory, chronicled by Roth in 1897, was at least partially operating at the time Gason wrote in 1882. One way or another, it seems clear that people acquired a considerable amounts of pituri made from D. hopwoodii plants growing in the Mulligan-Georgina area.

 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 exiisted d some form of human intervention with the plant.

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 I see the danger coming nearer and nearer, that owing to the enormous influence wielded, directly and indirectly, by those who are concerned in upholding the [drug] traffic, we are approaching a condition of things perilously near the corruption of our political system [authors’ emphasis]. 
                                                                           (Rowntree and Sherwell 1900:107)

Anxiety about drug use feels modern: the message above could be yesterday’s. Filed perhaps by authorities from Bogotá, Bangkok, the Mexican/US border, or other nodal areas of drug trading, it claims that demand for psychoactive substances is so voracious as to rend the social and political fabric. In fact, the speaker is an Englishman, former Prime Minister Lord Rosebery. He addresses the British House of Commons about the consequences of high alcohol demand. The year is 1901.

Rosebery’s consternation introduces my topic. Drug use has great antiquity, and not just as a source of pleasure. In the distant past, as now, people used drugs as tools for social bonding, for contact with the Sacred or spiritual for expressing identity, for manipulating others, and as aids in confronting culturally-specific problems. In short, for millennia, drugs occupied a central place in the economic, political, religious and social life of human beings.

The earliest known and dated association between humans and psycho-active substances goes back more than 50,000 years to the Neanderthal burials at Shanidar Cavein northern Iraq.  Here the deliberate enclosure in a grave of a group of non‑food plants, including the mind-altering Ephedra genus, suggests drug use connected with spiritual beliefs (Furst 1976:4).

According to archaeologist/anthropologist Andrew Sherratt  from the University of Oxford, 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’ that is about 70,000 -50,000 years before the present era (Sherratt 1995).  Supporting evidence for this comes from  linguistic, mythological, and philological research.  It indicates Palaeolithic hunters (i.e. Ice Age Homo sapiens) consumed psycho-active substances, most probably hallucinogens, right across the Northern Hemisphere during this period.

In that harsh world, neither gods nor God figured in peoples’ cosmology. Ice Age hunters were simple animists. They believed that all living things contained spirits—the mega-fauna they stalked or trapped, the lichen, mosses and  small game they sometimes acquired when  ice and snow  permitted. To get in touch with, and influence, this alternate world, prehistoric people consumed hallucinogens. Priestly figures—shamans—interpreted the resulting visions.

The successful shaman was part anchorman, part saviour,  part metamorphosed animal. Prehistoric art displays his set piece: antlered or horned head gear, a shepherd’s crook, a neckpiece strung with paws of the giant cave bear or other hunting insignia. Drawing upon drug-induced hallucinations, the shaman became  ‘master of animals’ with  an ability to visit the spirit world, to summon up game, and to plan and ensure triumphant hunts.

The shaman’s oeuvre included other performance events: staging rituals and ceremonies designed to enhance fecundity among both band members and the animals on which the group depended, and actions designed to maintain the stability of the group. The latter involved mediating social discord and curing illness, again through the interpretation of drug-induced visions. Many successful shamans are thought to have become group leaders.

Most of us today would believe that hallucinogens were ineffectual tools for the social, political and economic tasks to which Palaeolithic peoples applied them. But in evaluating the past, it needs to be remembered that ‘the consolations of imaginary realities are not imaginary consolations’. In that period, life was precarious: food was often scarce, and the need to slaughter individual mega-fauna on any one day could become critical in  avoiding starvation.  On the other hand, attacking a woolly mammoth or a half-ton bison with wooden spears tipped with sharpened stone could just as certainly  threaten the group’s existence. The weapons were too frail to kill large animals at first blow, and the struggle to dispatch a wounded, enraged beast might cause enough death and injury so that the hunting bands might again face extinction, this time from the weakening of the small band.


Gradually the climate warmed. The ice retreated. People continued to drift and settle across much of the world, all the while maintaining their interests in psycho-active substances. Did agriculture develop from the need to regularize drug supplies? Nobody knows. But certainly when our ancestors turned to cultivating plants rather than simply picking them wherever they could be found, mind-altering plants were among the earliest they selected for experimentation.

Cannabis sativa was one of the first four crops involved in the origins of Chinese agriculture in the 8th millennium B.P (Ho 1977). The people of Middle America domesticated tobacco (Nicotiana sp.) as early as maize, their staple food. Coca, (Erythroxylum coca) the plant source of cocaine, appears archaeologically about 5,000 B.P. inCentral Peruin a horticulturalists’ camp. Opium, a member of the native Mediterranean flora, was a cultivated plant in the early Neolithic in Middle Europe, and by the late Neolithic, archaeological remains in Swiss lake villages indicate a fully domesticated  plant, in the sense that, like cereals, opium had lost its self-seeding mechanism. (Sherratt 1995:28 ).

Unlike each of the above psycho-active substances, alcohol was unsuitable for  hunter-gatherers. The latter’s wandering lifestyles meant that all their needs had to be met by items of low bulk and weight. Not surprisingly then, alcohol was not one of the earliest psychoactive substances people consumed. What is thought to be the first archaeological traces of alcohol coincide with the first permanent homes humans built. These were, in turn, associated with the beginnings of horticulture. This was at Catal  Huyuk inAnatolia, around 9 000 BP (i.e. Before the Present ) according to archaeologist  Mellaart (1967).

Drugs as highly-prized items in trading also shone in the murky past. They are not a phenomena of the last few centuries as people are inclined to think, nor the result of technical developments in transport, nor a product of capitalism. Psychoactive substances were frequently, perhaps almost always, present as valued items when long-distance exchanges first linked together communities with different environments, cultures and histories.  In fact some researchers  suggest that demand for psychoactive substances may have been the initiating factor in the development of inter-regional trade, or, similarly, that because of their wide acceptability, drugs became the ‘gold standard’ without which inter-regional trade might neither have developed nor endured.

Trade in wine was undoubtedly a mainstay of the ancient Mediterranean economy in Greek and Roman times according to archaeologist A. Sherratt. A mark of that era as it is of our own was the regional production of especially desirable vintages. And in researching the same dynamic to the north-west of Europe, archaeologist M. Dietler [ 1990:390 ] claims wine was the primary commodity of trade between the Mediterraneanand the Iron Age peoples of western Europe. Dietler also emphasizes the extreme importance of alcohol as a mechanism for recruiting a labour-force throughout much of prehistory from the Neolithic onwards.

Although people first domesticated tobacco in Middle America, by the time Columbus arrived in the New World there were probably no Indian populations from Canadato the tip of South America who did not either grow tobacco or obtain it by trade (Furst  1976 ).  About 4000 B.P. people were trading coca leaves in association with surplus coca production in the Peruregion. Use of the betel nut mixture probably began in Malaysia, but it spread widely throughout South-East Asia about 2000 years ago, possibly in conjunction with the spread of Hindu and Buddhist missionaries.

When Europeans first made contact with West Africa about 1450, a highly developed economy already existed there. It possessed elaborate trading systems, both local and inter-regional.  A caffeine-based stimulant Kola nut (Kola niida) was the economic basis of this wholly African trade. So strong was kola’s appeal, that at times the trade covered a distance of about 3,500km, across the Sahara to the Mediterranean in the north and down to the Volta Riverin the south. The historian J. Goody (1964) argues that the  regional significance of the African state of Dagoma may be due to its control over kola trading.

Today, it is probable that all societies utilize psychoactive-substances to one degree or another. A survey of the Probability Sample File, a group of 60 files from the Human Research  Area Files chosen so as to meet probability sampling requirements (Lagace 1974), suggests that more than 92 per cent of all societies use mind-altering substances. Even in Muslim communities, which publicly renounce drugs, many individuals consume one or the other of the psychoactive stimulants: tea or coffee, or the stronger kola and qat. The United States, which regards so harshly the importation and use of cannabis, opiates, and cocaine, has tolerated amphetamines in professional baseball since 1970. T. J. Quinn, Sports Writer for The Daily News, in November 2005 described amphetamine use in professional sport as ‘so common it is almost quaint’ with club houses commonly having two pots of coffee on stand-by. One carries the label ‘coaches’ coffee;  the second, laced with amphetamines, is ‘players coffee’.


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Psychoactive drug use has great antiquity, and not only because taking drugs makes individuals feel good. In the distant past, as now, people also used drugs as tools for social bonding; for contacting the sacred/spiritual; for expressing identity; for manipulating others; and as aids in confronting culture-specific problems. In short, for millennia, drug consumption occupied a central place in the economic, political, religious and social life of human beings.

However, no written languages existed prior to 5000 BP. Consequently little knowledge remains in the 21st century of humanity’s 50-70,000 year tussle with psychoactive substances. I have attempted to salvage what does exist and compile it. My aim is to provide 21st century discussions of drug use with more context and usefulness than they presently possess.

‘Prehistoric’ refers to the period before a written language existed, or before a non-literate people came into sustained contact with a literate society; that is a society having the ability to record events in writing. So the term ‘prehistoric’ is relative. Great Britain’s settlement of Australia ended the prehistoric period for Aboriginal Australia, and Britain itself lost its ‘prehistoric’ status with the spread into Britain of the Roman Empire about the time of Christ.

When such confrontation begins, many details are often recorded about the life styles lifestyles of the non-literate group. Sometimes this provides examples of prehistoric drug use. This is one source I use both for general information and for three case studies of prehistoric drug-using communities.

PNG field work: Learning some dance steps, celebrating a return to health.

In addition, I conducted field-work in the 1980s among a Papua New Guinea community currently producing, trading, and consuming psychoactive drugs. Even then, this community was isolated: neither cash nor shops, no electricity, no phones, no mail, no newspapers, almost no radios. No roads. What transport existed was a ten-hour trip by dug-out canoe to the nearest market village via crocodile—inhabited rivers and swamps. I sought this isolation. I believed that drug data I gathered in this situation could reveal analogies with drug behaviour in prehistoric communities which also produced, traded, and consumed psychoactive drugs.

In my field work research I drew upon both my anthropological training and my pharmacological background. I based my working hypotheses on the neurotransmitter dopamine and the effects of psychoactive drugs on the reward strata of mammal brains. I looked for correlation between drug production and distribution on the one hand and shifts in power, increase in regional trade and land-use patterns on the other.

The social nature of knowledge is a thread running through my blog. Knowledge is never just ‘out there’ waiting to be picked up by eager researchers.. Everywhere, social, economic, religious, and political forces determine which knowledge, and interpretations of knowledge, advance into a society’s mainstream thinking. Records of ancient and modern drug consumption illustrate this truth.



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