Archive for the ‘Drug knowledge controlled by religion,politics, theory, etc.’ Category

Knowledge is often slow to permeate throughout the public domain; sometimes it never does. What would be the result with the neuroscience research? The ideas that drug use and drug-seeking are biologically normal and that they result from initial contact between consumption of a psychoactive substance, and a seductive evolutionary process in consumers’ brains, may be too novel and too consequential for easy digestion. However if the neuroscience model were to be fully accepted and promoted, there would be significant losers. These would be the powerful professional groups and government departments currently supporting the belief that it is the weak, the socially disadvantaged, and the psychopath who turn to drug use/abuse for relief. This would not be the greatest concern however.

In his valedictory to C.R Schuster, the latter’s lab colleague and fellow scientist William Woolverton PhD., (July 2011) claimed that animal drug choice issues became his (Woolverton’s) continuing intellectual challenge and pleasure. However, he and others have been ‘bedeviled’ ever since by the question raised by animal drug choice research: does free will exist or not? I mention this story because I think this will be a common reaction to the neuroscience model of drug use/abuse.

For millennia, peoples, societies and religious sects have debated whether individuals make free choices about their lives without the interference of Gods, or Fate, or other external influences. Today, this issue seems dormant. Nevertheless, many of our significant cultural constructions, like religion, moral authority and the legal system, stand upon the concept that individuals have free will.  It is difficult to see how these could continue to be compatible with accepting the biological basis of drug addiction.


To date, my posts about prehistoric drugs have roughly followed the time sequence in which these interests absorbed my attention. My next step was planning my fieldwork. Traditionally in anthropology, novices best prove their abilities by living unsupported in the toughest community they can stomach. Naturally it must also be relevant to your hypotheses. Mine was based on inferences from pituri and the neurological model of drug abuse. So I needed   an isolated drug using community that might serve as an ethnographic model as close as possible to a prehistoric community.

I do intend to include an account of this field work in this blog because it is very relevant. However I (or rather my shell) is becoming very aged and I feel I might not be able to finish it.  So, my next post will leave you with a 2013 account of what I see as the current situation with the neurological model of drug use.



Woolverton, W. (2011). A Tribute to Charles Schuster, PhD. Psychopharmacology and Substance Abuse e Newsletter, July.


Read Full Post »

An example of how excessive [drug] behavior occurs might be provided by the socioeconomically deprived ghetto youngster who becomes involved with heroin use through peer pressure and finds such use an acceptable means of alleviating negative personal feelings (anxiety, insecurity, hostility, and frustration) allowing him to ‘feel good’ about himself and his environment.  On the other hand, a middle‑class, Irish Catholic, white male may resort to excessive alcohol use as the preferred vehicle for alleviating his hypophoric state and thus capture the same ‘feel good’ aura (Mule 1984:53).

Keup (1982:10) listed thirty‑seven named, separate, socio-cultural factors involved in “the aetiology  of maladaption [with drugs] the vicious circle of  causative factors involving the family, the youth and  industrial society”. He presents profiles of young drug  abusers, classifying them as either conformists, searchers,  experimenters, gluttons, or dionysians.

I have not written earlier about traditional explanations of drug use and drug abuse because the topic lacked relevance in a prehistoric context. Now I do so. You need to understand the old traditional model to understand the contribution  the neurosciences makes to understanding drug use/abuse. Apart from other issues the latter model is central to my question of whether drug use is result of socio-cultural conditioning or whether it is something rooted deep in mammal brain structures.

Examples of  ’the traditional explanation’ of drug misuse or abuse appear in the introductory quotes. As you can see, social causality and psychological dynamics rate as the villains. These explanations go back at least to the 1940s, possibly much earlier. Not only did individuals adopt these perspectives but so did institutions  ostensibly friendly to drug abusers. The Odyssey House movement refers to clients as ‘sociopaths’ who have never learnt either to trust or to cope.  Even  Alcoholics Anonymous, which is founded upon the concept that  alcohol abuse is a disease, also paradoxically argues that  the blame for contracting the disease rests with the  victim, referring to the “serious character flaws which made  problem drinkers of us” in the first place (Alcoholics  Anonymous quoted in Milam and Ketcham 1985:140). Some scientists imply a criticism of this model  claiming  that,  since 1984  virtually all forms of psychopathology have  been given causal roles in the use/abuse of drugs of psychoactive drugs. The implication here, I believe, is that if the one action is attributed multiple causes, then none of the causes may be correct (Schuster, Renault and Blaine 1979).

 This echoed my own feelings that the traditional explanation of drug misuse or abuse was unhelpful.  And like many people I had one or two heavy drug (alcohol)  users in my social group, and I was saddened by the social stigma they attracted. So I began  following the neuroscience research in the early 1980s through my pharmacy background. I found it exciting. It satisfactorily linked drug chemistry to brain chemistry in arguing that the drugs we consume to alter our moods, soothe our anxieties, explore our creativity, revitalize our courage etcetera, all contain neurotransmitter chemicals identical to neurotransmitters in our brains. The addition of  drug plant neurotransmitter to the neurotransmitters natural to our brain, caused the brain to react by changing the synthesis of the ‘home-grown’ neurotransmitters, or by altering their storage or  release. This was the means by which drug consumption allows individuals to alter their emotions, mood, memory, powers and perceptions of self and others.

The brain’s reward system becomes involved also. As a result, every drug-consuming mammal, whether human or non-human, immediately experiences the urge to continue using psychoactive substances.  Even before any adjustment to the physical body occurs, this form of biological addiction affects all mammals who sample psychoactive substances, whether housewives or CEOs, parrots or bears. With  their first taste of a drug, innocent consumers fall victim to an evolutionary ‘tweak’. The addict is innocent.

Nevertheless not every human individual slips into chronic drug seeking as a result of this exposure. Dr C.R.  Schuster, who in1980 headed the lab for psychopharmacology at  the University of Chicago, noted that a range of cultural and environmental factors may and does limit initial drug use. My accounts of prehistoric drug use reveals some of these environmental factors: for example  continuing supply shortages of pituri and exact knowledge of where it grew, certainly limited use. Socio-cultural restraints shaped consumption too. Aboriginal societies were mostly gerontologies at the time. Powerful older men ensured that life’s goodies went only to powerful older men; and only revered older men knew the secrets of curing Duboisia hopwoodii plants to produce ‘real’ pituri.

Read Full Post »

The Need to Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Read Full Post »

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.  

Read Full Post »

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.

 Janiger, O. & M. Dobkin de Rios 1973 Suggestive hallucinogenic properties of tobacco. Medical Anthropology Newsletter 4:6.

Johnston, T.H. 1939 “Pituri”. Mankind 2:224. 

Johnston, T.H. & J.B. Cleland 1933/4 The history of the Aboriginal narcotic, pituri.Oceania4:201.

Jones, R. 1969 Fire-stick farming. Australian Natural History. 16:224.

Kennedy, J.F., P.J. Skerman, F.W. Whitehouse, C. Ogilvie 1949

The Channel Country of south-westQueensland. Report to the Minister for Lands.Brisbane: Bureau of Investigation. Department of Public Lands. Government Printer.

 La Barre, W. 1970 Old and new world narcotics: a statistical question and an ethnological reply. Economic Botany V24:368.

1972 Hallucinogens and the shamanic origins of religion. In P.T. Furst (ed.) Flesh of the gods: the ritual use of hallucinogens. 261. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Latz, P.K. and G.F. Griffin 1976 Changes in Aboriginal land management in relation to fire and to food plants in centralAustralia. In B.S. Hetzel and H.J.

Frith(eds.) The Nutrition of Aborigines in relation to the ecosystem of centralAustralia: 77Melbourne: CSIRO.

Lee, R. 1968 What hunters do for a living or, how to make out on scarce resources. In R. Lee and I. DeVore (eds.) Man the hunter.Chicago: Aldine.

Lewin, L. 1931 Phantastica, narcotic and stimulative drugs, their use and abuse.London: Kegan, Paul, Trench, Trubner.

Liversidge, A. 1880 The alkaloid from piturie. Proceedings of the Royal Society ofNew South Wales14:123.

MacGillvray, J. 1852 Narrative of the voyage of HMS Rattlesnake . . . during the years 1846-50.London: Boone.

 Macknight, C. 1972 Macassans and Aborigines.Oceania42:283.

Madigan, C.T. 1938 The Simpson Desert and its borders. Proceedings of the 59 Royal Society ofNew South Wales71:503.

Maiden, J.H. 1893 The useful native plants ofAustralia.London: Trubner & Co.

Matthews, R.H. 1905Ethnological notes on the Aboriginal tribes ofQueensland.QueenslandGeographical Journal 20:51.

Mattingly, A.H. 1939Pitcheri. Wildlife 1:26.

McCarthy, F.D. 1939″Trade” in Aboriginal Australia and trade relationships withTorres Strait,New GuineaandMalaya.Oceania9:405, 10:80.

McCoy, A.W. 1980 Drug traffic: narcotics and organized crime inAustralia.Sydney: Harper and Row.

Micha, F.J. 1970 Trade and change in Australian Aboriginal cultures. In A.R. Pilling and R.A. Waterman (eds.) Diprotodon in DetribalizationEast Lansing:MichiganStateUniversityPress.

Moore, K.W. 1980 Letters to P. Watson. June 1980.

Moorehead, A. 1963Cooper’s Creek.New York: Harper and Row.

Morris, E.E. 1898 Austral English, a dictionary of Australian words, phrases and usages.London: Macmillan.

Mulvaney, D.J. 1975 The prehistory ofAustralia.Blackburn: The Dominion Press.

Peterson, N. 1979Aboriginal use of Australian Solanaceae. In J.G. Hawkes et al (eds.) The biology and taxonomy of the Solanaceae.London: Academic Press.

Rayment, T. 1946The valued pituri. Walkabout 13:42.

Revolutionary Health Committee ofHunanProvince1977

A barefoot doctor’s manual. Rev Edn Seattle: Cloudburst Press.

Robicsek, F. 1978 The smoking gods.Norman:UniversityofOklahomaPress.

Roth, W.E. 1897 Ethnological studies among the north-west-central Queensland Aborigines.Brisbane: Government Printer. 

1901 Food: its search, capture and preparation.Brisbane:North QueenslandEthnography Bulletin 3.

Rowley, C.1978 The destruction of Aboriginal society. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Sahlins, M. 1974 Stone Age Economics.London:Butlerand Tanner.

Schultes, R.E. 1940 Teonanacatl: narcotic mushrooms of the Aztecs. American Anthropologist V42:429.

1972 An overview of hallucinogens in the western hemisphere. In P.T. Furst (ed.) Flesh of the gods: the ritual use of hallucinogens.London: George Allen and Unwin.

1979 Solanaceous hallucinogens and their role in the development ofNew Worldcultures. In J.G. Hawkes et al (eds.) The biology and taxonomy of the Solanaceae.London: Academic Press.

Silvette, H., E.C. Hoff, P.S. Larson 1962 The actions of nicotine on central nervous system functions. Pharmacological Reviews 14:137.

Smyth, R.B. 1878 Aborigines ofVictoria. 2 vols.Melbourne: Government Printer.

Spencer, B. & F.J. Gillen 1927 The Arunta. A study of a stone age people. 2 vols.London: Macmillan.

Strehlow, T.G.H. 1965 Culture, social structure, and environment in Aboriginal centralAustralia. In P.M. Berndt and C.H. Bemdt (eds.) Aboriginal man inAustralia.Sydney: Angus and Robertson 

1970 Geography and the totemic landscape in centralAustralia: a functional study. In R.M. Berndt (ed.) Australian Aboriginal Anthropology.

Taber, C.W. 1962 Taber’s cyclopedic medical dictionary.Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publications.

Thomson, D. 1939 Notes on the smoking-pipes ofNorth Queenslandand the Northern Territory of Australia. Man 39:76.

Tindale, N.B. 1941 Survey of the half-caste problem inSouth Australia. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society ofAustralasia, South Australian Branch 42:66.

1974 Aboriginal tribes ofAustralia.Berkeley:UniversityofCaliforniaPress.

Vogan, A.J. 1890 The Black police. A story of modernAustralia.London: Hutchinson and Co.

Watson, P., O. Launratana and W.S. Griffiths. 1983. The Pharmacology of Pituri. Journal of Ethnopharmacology.

Watt, J.M. and M.G. Breyer-Brandwijk 1962 The medicinal and poisonous plants of southern and easternAfrica.Edinburgh: E. and S. Livingstone Ltd.

Webb, L.J. 1948 Guide to the medicinal and poisonous plants ofQueensland. CSIRO Bulletin 232.

1950 Alkaloids of Queensland flowering plants. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis,UniversityofQueensland.

Weiss, G. 1973 Shamanism and priesthood in the light of the Campa Ayahuasca ceremony. In M.J. Harner (ed.) Hallucinogens and shamanism.New York:OxfordUniversityPress.

Wells, F.H. 1893 The habits, customs and ceremonies of the Aboriginals of the Diamantina, Herbert and Eleanor Rivers, in east centralAustralia. Australian Association for the Advancement of Science 5:515.

Wilbert,J. 1972 Tobacco and shamanistic ecstasy among the Warao Indians of Venezuela. In P.T. Furst (ed.) Flesh of the gods: the ritual use of hallucinogens.London: George Allen and Unwin.

Wimberley, C.C. 1899 Letter to the Editor. Science of Man 2:69.

Wingate, P. 1978 The Penguin medical encyclopedia. Aylesbury: Hazell Watson and Viney Ltd.

Winnecke, C. 1886 Physical features ofCentral Australia. Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society ofAustralasia,South Australia2:8.

Read Full Post »

this …precious foliage which is carried always about by them broken into small fragments and tied up in little bags. (von Mueller 1878)

By the early 1900s, most of the above tribes [from the pituri producing areas] had been decimated by privation, disease, alcohol, drought and lead. (Boulia Shire Council 1976)

I struggled greatly in researching the Aboriginal drug pituri. Well before 1890, white pastoral settlement along the margins of the Australia’s great central deserts disrupted the pituri production, distribution and consumption taking place there. The disdain many early settlers felt for the indigenous population, the brutal killing of so many and the internment of others, ensured that pituri soon ceased to exist as an important institution in Aboriginal life. Few, if any, descendants of the original local Aboriginal land owners remain today in the pituri area. And even if I could locate them, I thought it unlikely that they would share with me what they knew.

Pituri Bush

Pituri Bush

Quite apart from the fact that Aboriginal people have little reason to like whites, Aboriginal attitudes to disseminating cultural facts differ from ours. In Aboriginal culture, power comes from control over knowledge (referred to as the Law). Only the worthy can access knowledge, and this only through a succession of painful initiation grades. Taboos and death penalties guard the Law, and punish those who offend against it. Failure to acquire knowledge (mainly by avoiding relevant initiations) constitutes a serious offence. So is acquiring knowledge to which one is not entitled, even if this occurs by accident. Informing others (even other Aboriginal people) of sacred ritual is equally grave.

In practical terms then, I had to settle for what I could find out about pituri from the records of early British settlers. These included explorers’ journals, surveyors’ reports, botanical toxicology evaluations, police documents, private letters and pastoral memoirs. Difficulties existed here too, but in this case they arose from the limitations of white knowledge.

Generally, people recognize only what they already know. Nineteenth century British ignorance of pharmaco-dynamics and phyto-chemistry meant that few observers appreciated what Aboriginal people were actually achieving by using pituri as they did. As a consequence, the above sources, the pastoral memoirs, the police reports etc., often failed to ask the relevant questions about pituri. Consequently, the story of pituri is one of incompleteness and lost opportunity—at least from a white perspective.


When the British arrived in Australia, Aboriginal society was a gerontology, and, like all gerontologies, its revered older men restricted life’s good things to other revered older men. Not surprisingly then, Aboriginal elders appear to have held a prerogative over pituri use. Only after white interference with pituri and its trade began, do references appear naming both Aboriginal women and young men as pituri users as well as elders.

Some whites forcibly seized control of pituri supplies, and used the drug for their own purposes A few pastoralists chewed it themselves in lieu of tobacco, others employed it ‘to ginger up’ their (unpaid) young black workers, missionaries built up artifact collections by offered pituri to warriors in exchange for shields, spears and stone tools; the Chinese cook at a cattle property where pituri grew sent supplies of the raw plant nearly 2 000 km south to his countrymen in Melbourne during a shortage of opium supplies; and at least one rough bush pub in Bedourie mixed pituri with alcohol as a knock-out drink for unwary (white) customers.

To chew pituri, an Aboriginal individual took about one tablespoonful of the cured leaf and stem of the Duboisia hopwoodii plant, obtained by trade or exchange (see below). He ground or chewed this to a finer texture and then he added alkali ash. The alkali ash increased the potency of the drug, enabling the latter to become more easily absorbed and better able to cross the blood/brain barrier. Both ash and pituri received careful mixing on a piece of bark, then the mixture was briefly re-chewed. Now the drug existed as a thick brown-grey paste, capable of transformation into a small roll, slightly longer and thicker than a cigarette. The quid was then ready for consumption.

No early record exists of Aboriginal people describing what chewing pituri ‘meant’ or ‘did’ for them, though many whites left written records of the practice. From the Europeans’ view, blacks achieved two main objectives: the drug energized users thus alleviating physical stress; and in some circumstances it made blacks seem drunk or drugged. Almost from the beginning, settlers thought these effects incompatible with one another. So began the first of many puzzles about the native drug.

Many settler accounts of using pituri to alleviate stress suggest European use of tobacco: :

Used … for occasions when long privations have to be endured (Hodgkinson in Bancroft 1877:9).

The natives chew it to invigorate themselves during their long foot journeys through the desert (Von Mueller in Smyth 1878:222).

Used constantly to deaden fatigue and cravings of hunger (Murray in Bancroft 1879:9).

The native, after using this pituri, is sufficiently courageous to fight (Gilmore in Bancroft 1877:8)

Pituri as a means of radically altering consciousness—appearing drunk or drugged—appear in more than 24 written references. Note below also the placement of the drug behind the ear. This seems to have some significance to users.

It also plays an important part in the social rites of these natives at their ‘Big Talk’ and feasts. The pituri quid for I find no more appropriate word for it is ceremoniously passed from mouth to mouth, each member of the tribe having a chew from the pin’aroo, or head man, downward. This singular wassail cup never fails to promote mirth and good fellowship, or to loosen the tongues of the eloquent … There is a curious mode of greeting on Coopers Creek. When friends meet they salute with ‘gaow gaow’ (peace peace) and forthwith exchange pituri quids which, when well chewed, are returned to their owners’ ears’ (Murray in Bancroft 1879:91).

…it (pituri) is ready for use and it is a comical sight to see half a dozen nude niggers squatting on their hands gravely passing this, no doubt to them delicious morsel from one to another, each chewing it in turn until the effects begin to appear in their staring eyes and a stupid look … I can only compare it to the appearance of an ‘habitual opium consumer’ after indulging in his favourite drug. The effect on some is stupefaction, others again begin their corroboree and the different effects on different Aboriginals are just as apparent as the very different effects alcoholic liquors have on other members of the genus Homo. On completion of the chewing and passing around business. it generally finds its way back to the original preparer who disposes of it by sticking it behind his ear for future consumption (Bedford 1885:111).

This weed has much the same effect as opium on a Chinaman …The man at the camp masticates a quid and after a time passes it to his neighbour who does the same and so it goes round the party (Myles in Curr 1886:36).

Pituri produces a dreamy voluptuous sensation (Roth 1901:31).

The quid or bolus is, on ceremonial occasions said to be passed from native to native. Each one masticating it for a time, and then passing it on, it finding a resting place behind the original proprietor’s ear until again required (Liversidge 1880:124).

They are sitting around the fire and each man takes one cocoon (of pituri) and he will chew that until he goes just about to sleep … into a sort of coma. . . They go off into a daze. Then when he’s finished with that wad (of pituri) he puts that behind the next fellow’s ear … There are about five of them and that continues right along until the five are sound asleep. (Coghlon 1980).

 Sources map

Number  Observer  Area  Source 
1 Bedford  Georgina River  Bedford l887:111 
2 Brown  Mulligan River  Brown in Bancroft 1879:7 
3 Coghlon  Georgina River  Coghlon 1980 
4 Eglington  Burke River  Curr 1886, V2:346 
5 Gilmour  Eyres Creek  Bancroft 1877: 7 
6 Heagney  Thomson-Barcoo Rivers, junction  Curr 1886, V2:374 
7 Hodgkinson  Mulligan River  Hodgkinson in Bancroft 1877:l0 
8 Howitt  East of Lake Eyre  Bancroft 1879:9 
9 King  Innaminka  Moorehead l963:ll8 
10 Murray  East of Lake Eyre  Murray in Bancroft 1879:9 
11 Myles  Thargomindah  Curr 1886, V2:36 
12 Paull  Warburton River  Curr 1886, V2:18 
13 Salmon  Coongy Lake  Curr 1886, V2:24 
14 Wills  Innaminka  Bancroft 1879:9 
15 von Mueller  Cooper’s Creek  Smyth 1878, V1:223 

Only two additional references lie outside the above pattern. One botanist claimed that:

Blacks after chewing the leaves plaster the plug formed by doing so behind their ears as they believe the effect is intensified ( Buckland 1879 :240) Italics added.

No other observers made similar claims. Nevertheless, the number of references to placement behind the ear and their details, do suggest this had a particular significance. (And in hindsight, we can see resemblances here to our very- much-later invention of nicotine patches).

The second unusual account of pituri use comes from Gilmour, a police officer, who made lengthy trips well beyond the pastoral frontier. This placed him in a position to note behaviour as it existed at the initial moment of white/black contact, The action he observed took place some years before it found publication.

The old men before any serious undertaking chew these dried leaves … One old man Mr Gilmour and his party fell in with refused to have anything to say or do until he had chewed the pituri: after which he rose and harangued in grand style, ordering the explorers to leave the place (Gilmour 1872 in Bancroft 1877.)

The implication here is that pituri was a source of wisdom, much like an oracle, with the old man being a shaman whose role was to draw upon and interpret its advice.

This reference is difficult to evaluate. On the one hand, anthropologists believe that hunter/gathering lifestyles ‘program’ their followers to adopt shamanism. The argument goes: hunter/gatherers lead dicey lives. Almost every day brings an on-the-spot trials of judgment and skill. In these circumstances, supernatural guidance would lift hope and offer reassurance. Despite this argument I found one reference only to pituri as a source of shamanistic vision. This does not mean that shamanism did not exist; only that I did not find other evidence of it in early records.


And there’s a problem. Can the one drug enable users both to undertake long marches through the desert, and also deeply alter their state of consciousness? I thought it unlikely and I suspected that this seeming anomaly explains some of the reasons why pituri has failed to generate research interest. I re-read the last analysis of pituri done prior to my research. The 1933/4 paper byT.H. Johnstom and J.B. Cleland claimed that the active ingredients of pituri were nicotine and a new substance with a similar chemical structure. The analyst named it ‘nor-nicotine’—indicating that a missing methyl group distinguished the latter’s chemical structure from that of nicotine itself. Both nor-nicotine and nicotine effect the human body similarly, although doubt exists as to their relative toxicity.

If nicotine and nor-nicotine were the active ingredients, it would, to some extent, be an appropriate finding. Nicotine fits the profile of a stress-relieving drug with its initial capacity to raise blood pressure, increase adrenaline production, suppress hunger contractions, and provide efficient use of body fluids. And nicotine would have a relevant cultural context also. Indigenous Australian peoples have long exploited other nicotine-containing plants At the time of British settlement, 15 or more native Australian species of tobacco existed. As far as white knowledge goes, Aboriginal people utilised at least two or three of these, together with two imported tobaccos, one each from what are now the sovereign countries of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. So if pituri did contain nicotine, it fitted into an existing nicotine-exploiting cultural complex.


Hodgskinsin, W.O. 1877. Northwest Exploration. Parlimentary paper: Brisbane.

Smyth. 1878. Aborigines of Victoria. 2 vols. Melbourne Government Printer.

Bancroft J. 1877. Pituri: paper read before the Queensland philosophical society. Brisbane Government Printer.

-Pituri and Tobacca: paper read before the Queensland philosophical society. Brisbane Government Printer.

Bedford CT. 1887. Reminiscences of a surviving trip from Boulia to the South Australian border. Preceedings of the Royal Geographical society of Australia. Queensland branch. 2:99

Buckland A.W. 1879. Stimulants in use amongst savages. Journal of the royal anthropolical society of Great Britain and Ireland. 8: 239.

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

Curr E.M. 1886-7. The Australian Race. 4 vols. Melbourne Government Printer.

Johnston T.H. & J.B.Cleland. 1933/1934. ‘The history of the Aboriginal narcotic, pituri.’ Oceania 4:201

. Oceania oru eh

Liversidge A. 1880. The alkaloid from Piturie. Preceedings of the royal society of New South Wales. 14:123

Roth W.E. 1901. Food: its search, capture and preparation. North Queensland Ethnographic Bulletin.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »