Archive for the ‘Drugs as Tools’ Category

The Need to Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Despite prehistoric drugs being my topic,  here I stretch the envelope a bit.  No prehistoric accounts describe any one individual deliberately using drugs to express, communicate  and reflect his/her cultural values and structures.That does not mean it did not happen. Many examples of this practice exist in historical and modern records as I have, and will further, describe. These  take place seemingly irrespective of race, class, geography, and  subsistence technology. So it seems possible, even probable, that use of drugs to signal social values, position and structure  also occurred in the prehistoric.

Dame Mary Douglas (1978:93‑112) was a prolific British social anthropologist known for her writings on human culture and symbolism. She argued that social information is transmitted by a range of media, one of which is the physical body. The body’s actions, its expressions, and its appearances, Douglas argues, is  everywhere culturally organized  to one degree or another, in order to express and reflect the structure and values of the  social world.

For example individuals eat special foods to celebrate weddings and religious festivals like Christmas. Withdrawing nourishment sends alternate signals: penitence  or obedience as in Ramadan and Lent; or perhaps the desire to project a more youthful appearance. Hair is equally versatile for communication. Is it rigidly coiffured, or does it flow freely below the shoulder line? Is it curly? Or tonsured?  Or tousled and sun streaked? And is the cut ‘short back and sides?’ or a no 1 cut ? or shaved in patches and  stubble-like elsewhere?

Besides adapting the visible  body and its paraphernalia to role –playing and information transmitting, individuals also  change their minds–literally. People chemically re‑orient their Central Nervous System,  altering their moods,  feelings, perceptions and orientations between themselves and  the external world. Why does this happen? Assuming that the need for harmony in symbols is as psychologically essential and universal as Douglas (1978)  suggests, perhaps drug use in these circumstances appears as the appropriate thing to do.

But note: use of  drugs which expresses social values and goals lies somewhere along a continuum stretching from the instrumental to the symbolic.  When use is instrumental, the value or goal  is objectively furthered by the physiological consequences of  drug consumption.  For example,  in many parts of the world drug use associates itself with the role of warrior. When the drug is a stimulant, like the amphetamines said to be given to British flyers in WWII, drug use is instrumental; it reduces fatigue, provides a surge of  energy etc, and thus contributes to success in battle.  By contrast in its declining and unsuccessful years, the north Indian Mughal army leaders used extra large amounts of opium before battles (Eraly1997) This was not instrumental since opium is a strong depressant.

Some references:

Among the Quechua [Inca] people of Peru and Bolivia, coca chewing is a powerful means of differentiating themselves from other ethnic groups. Handling, sharing, and consumption are closely governed by rules of etiquette. Adherence to these rules implies the presentation of one’s self as a participant in this [Quechua] tradition.

To Be Quechua: the Symbolism of Cocoa Chewing in Highland Peru  C. Allen  (1981:157).

Ah, devil ether ‑ a total body drug.  The mind recoils in horror, unable to communicate with the spinal column.  The hands flap crazily, unable to get  money out of the pocket… garbled laughter and hissing from the mouth… always smiling [author’s ellipses].  Ether is the perfect drug for Las Vegas.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Hunter S. Thompson 980:47).


St Patrick’s Day—that’s white peoples’ day. They get scary when they drink—all in a big crowd pretendin’ they’re Irish and looking for trouble.

Drinking Politics  (An African American comment)Marcus  (my files).


And below, a  contrary example: an Aboriginal Elder argues that tying alcohol consumption to a significant cultural value in isolated Aboriginal desert camps has disastrous consequences.

Indigenous generosity and reciprocity are admirable, and indeed beautiful features of our [Aboriginal] culture. But when you add addiction to foreign substances and habits to this culture, things that are admirable and beautiful become deformed and destructive. Demand sharing and alcohol just don’t mix. Cultural obligation makes it near impossible for Aborigines to ‘normalise’ their drinking.[1]

‘Shared descent into the maelstrom of addiction.’  Noel Pearson.  Director of the Cape York Institute for Public Policy  in The Week End Australian. October 13-14, 2012.


Liquor  advertising, which is designed to efficiently persuade people to consume particular brands of alcohol, pursues this task by associating alcohol with admired social values and goals, not by stressing the pleasures of drinking (my emphasis).  McConville  (1983) made a study of all advertisements appearing in the print media in Great Britain during the first quarter of 1982.  She found that when men were the target of sales campaigns, liquor consumption was tied to ‘challenge, dominance, competition, and remaining unmarried’(1983:59).   When potential women buyers were considered, again the pleasure of  drinking went unmentioned.The ‘bait’ of advertisements aimed at women was pairing off with a man; there are no advertisements which appeal to women on any other basis (McConville 1983:59).

In a more recent publication (2006), AC Nielsen refers to an international study investigating the role of taste as the determining factor in the choice of beer brands among dedicated users.  However, ‘blind’ tests soon revealed that difference in taste was not the critical issue as had been pre-supposed. In most countries, the most successful beer brands were those that symbolize group cohesion, equality and male bonding.

The use of drugs to relieve the consumer of responsibility for subsequent negative or destructive acts belongs in this category.  The sociologist  Pattison (1981) argued that many individuals in Western cultures use alcohol in this way, consuming it in quantity so that there is a reasonable expectation that such use may well result in arguments, accidents, sexual misconduct and  other inappropriate behavior.  Alcohol use is then claimed as social exoneration for the deviant conduct which follows. This became a feminist issue in the 1980s, when Jocelynne Scutt, a noted Australian feminist and barrister, writer, and columnist, argued  that accepting excessive alcohol use as an excuse for rape and domestic violence was a sexist rationalization.

Institutionalized ‘escape’ or ‘time out’ mechanisms occur in other cultures as well. There is  ‘wild‑man’ behavior in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, and the ‘beserker’ role in Scandinavia. In both latter cases drug use renders the perpetrator unable to carry out onerous economic responsibilities.

With regard to alcohol, it has been claimed that the  greater the number of positive, social reasons for use, the  higher will be the level of individual consumption. If true, this aspect of the use of legal drugs in Western  society may provide one  reason why drugs like heroin have had  negative connotations. Because heroin use is not an articulation of socially accepted  values, its consumption (and those of other  drugs)  becomes the  private, purposeful, creation of pleasure in one’s own body  without the help of another.  Trebach (1982:272) argues that  this is the reason that heroin use is viewed by “straight”  society as an activity in the same class as masturbation.


My next couple of blogs examine the power and political influence possessed by people who control access to psychoactive substances.


Douglas, M. 1978 Natural Symbols.  Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Eraly, A.1997.  The Mughal World : India’s Tainted Paradise. India: Weindenfeld & Nicolson

McConville, B. 1983 Women under the influence: alcohol and its impact.  London: Virago Press.

Neilsen       reference missing

Pattison, E.M. 1981  A bio‑psycho‑social analysis of alcohol and drug abuse: implications for social policy.  In L.R.H. Drew, Pierre Stolz and W.A. Barclay (eds.) Man, drugs and society: current perspectives.  Proceedings of the First Pan‑Pacific Conference on Drugs and Alcohol, Canberra, Australia, 1980.  Canberra: The Australian Foundation on  Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

Scutt.  J .1981 The alcoholic imperative: a sexist rationalization of rape and domestic violence.  In L.R.H. Drew, Pierre Stolz and W.A. Barclay (eds, .)  Man, drugs and society: current perspectives.  Proceedings of the First Pan‑Pacific Conference on Drugs and Alcohol, Canberra, Australia 1980.  Canberra: The Australian Foundation on  Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

Trebach  A.1982 The heroin solution.  New Haven: Yale University Press.


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At the end of  the 1960s, American anthropologist Victor Turner (1969:82) vastly stimulated social studies by developing a theory for analyzing ritual, symbols and performance. Among other arguments, Turner chose the word  ‘communitas’ to describe a social state in which group members confronted one another directly without the  behavioral determinants of status, roles and hierarchies. Turner argued that this ‘anti-structure’ formed a necessary alteration to the everyday, differentiated, social world. In Turners view, the two behavioral patterns, the structured and differentiated on the one hand, and the state of communitas on the other, represent major models of human interaction, with social groups juxtaposing and alternating between the two.

Victor Turner did not mention psychoactive substances in this connection, however, I have found situations fitting the descriptions of ‘communitas’ which are also associated with drug use: the Christmas office party; the traditional Japanese geisha party; some fund raising events like the sausage sizzles. At the latter, participants wear casual gear, children buzz around the adults and dogs around the barbecue;  role playing is at a minimum; ‘finger’ foods replace standard meals; beer and wine flow, unusual locations provide the setting, and interaction increases between people who are not usual associates.

Did communitas states occur in prehistoric times?  That is the inference from Turner’s argument that the structured and the state of communitas are major human models of interaction. But descriptions of drug use in prehistoric communities do not necessarily include descriptions of the characteristics which define a state of communitas. So it is hard to be certain that states of communitas existed, and if psychoactive substances were integral in their performance.  One episode that does contain sufficient detail is a particular tribal use of tobacco in Papua New Guinea. ‘Managing Sex and Anger; Among the Gebusi of Papua New Guinea’ by Bruce Knauft in Drugs In Western Pacific Societies: Relations of Substance ASAO Monograph No11 Editor Lamont Lindstrom (1987).

As Kauft explains it:

Among the Gebusi of central south New Guinea two different drugs—tobacco and kava—are  used ceremonially to produce strikingly similar  social transformations. In each case, heavy drug consumption at ritual feasts is directly related–in both Gebusi beliefs and in fact—to cessation of hostilities between antagonists and, subsequently, to marked social and sexual camaraderie between them. The functional significance of these transformations is particularly great given an extremely high rate of violence and homicide in Gebusi society. Most violence follows a death from sickness and involves male affines (that is male in-laws). This occurs particularly between those categories of kinsmen who are typically in a prominent drug-sharing relationship at ritual feasts.

Gebusi have been as isolated as their fellow country-men, the  Mundugumor. The population numbered about 450 when this account was written (pre-1987 publication).  They live in longhouse settlements on the Strickland Plain in PNG’s WesternProvince. Each longhouse holds up to 54 men women and children.  ‘Several’ long houses form an integrated ceremonial community. Tobacco, Knauft states, formed the essential element of male social life. However, unlike the Mundugumor, the Gabusi had no regional monopoly over tobacco supplies, as it was widely grown in the region. Consequently Gabusi  people rarely traded in tobacco. Gebusi people are also markedly non-competitive with status rivalry notably absent.

At ceremonial gatherings invitations usually extend to several community settlements, bringing together large numbers of unrelated males. Although the occasion is intended to be festive, it begins with displays of social distance, if not outright hostility, from the visitors. Their faces wear  dour, sullen expressions as they approach their hosts.  They carry weapons: spiked wooden cudgels or long pointed black palm bows. The latter make effective slashing weapons when used overhand. The ritual’s purpose is to overcome and transcend this hostility.

With several longhouses hosting the ritual, many male hosts attend, and a long line of guests must pass before them, much like a reception line at a Western wedding.  Every host has a bamboo pipe about half a meter long ending in a large bowl which is regularly replenished with additional smoke. Each and every visitor must accept a pipeful of smoke from each and every host, with the hosts determining the speed at which the pipes are offered. The room rapidly fills with smoke.  People cough, breathe deeply trying to catch their breath between hosts offering yet more smoking pipes. When their guests are in a temporary stupor  (due,  I suggest) to the depressant phase of nicotine now having replaced the stimulant phase) hosts persuade guests to let go of the weapons, and men address one another by affectionate terms such as ‘friend’ or ‘distant relative’. Genial feasting concludes the ritual.


Another thnographic description of communitas comes from  Kennedy’s (1978:220) account of the beer working‑parties, the ‘tesguinada’ of the Tarahumara people of the  SierraMadreMountains of Mexico.

These people live in steep mountainous terrain which divides family units from one another. Even for husbands and wives communication is difficult. A state of extreme shyness exists between the pair and their work patterns are unhelpful in this regard. One or other of the couple must care for the herds of goats, watch widely separate strands of corn, check wandering cattle, and for the wife care for small  children. The family comes back together at night but sheer exhaustion and lack of light limit contact even then.

Group situations have a different reality from those of every day, particularly the tesguinada.   The latter is not a gathering based on kin or clan. It is a  beer –work party set around a particular task which may be difficult or even boring when done alone. In the tesguinada the norms and conditions of daily existence are temporarily suspended or modified.  The contrast between  the two—everyday life and the tesguinada–is heightened by the great increase in  the frequency of social interaction, by the telescoping of social functions into a short space of time, and by their compression in space.  Under the stimulation of crowding, high frequency interaction  occurs, and in the altered states of consciousness produced by alcohol, actions tend to take on an exaggerated and intense character, memory is often impaired, and many of the daily operating rules are relaxed or reversed. Drinking to the point of unconsciousness is not uncommon.

Tarahumara etiquette of ‘tesguinada’ drinking requires that all adults present drink as much beer as possible. Rarely is a person allowed to refuse the obligation to drink. However this is not a heavy drinking society. Natural and cultural conditions limit beer consumpiont. Beer is made from the staple food, corn.  Consequently sufficient  supplies to allow for brewing often do not exist and brewed beer only keeps for a few days. And since the steep terrain makes attendance at tesguinada difficult, holding a tesguinada needs considerable organization.

To Kennedy, the ethnographer, the tesguinada serves all the functions of social life outside those served by the household. The tesguinada is the religious group, the economic group, the entertainment group, the place where disputes are settled, marriages are arranged and deals completed. Opportunities exists for role playing, and the tesguinada is probably the only situation for the release of aggressive impulses. Kennedy concludes ‘Society’ itself is in effect created in association with communal alteration of perception  (1978: 220)’


The idea that consumables may play roles in the articulation and manipulation of social relations and processes lies behind European archaeological interests in Iron Age ‘feasting’.  This includes consumption of alcohol or other psychoactive substances according to the archaeologist M. Dietler (1990) .  Llnmaes near Glenmorgan in Wales is an important site is. It is a vast midden with rich deposits of pig bone (a feasting meat)  human remains, and numbers of imported axes,  bronze and iron cauldrons.  Lying only three miles from the Welsh coast implies ancient trade and exchange, and the site may become of international importance.

I have not read this material myself yet.  However it does not seem to fit the category of  ‘communitas’. True, both feasting and communitas are about events or rituals which change social relationships and social processes. With feasting however, reports suggest the social changes envisioned are  permanent:  creations of  power, status and hierarchies rather than modes of functioning  which alternate between the unstructured and the very differentiated.



Dietler, M. 1990.‘ Driven by Drink, The Role of Drugs in the Political Economy in the Case of Early Iron Age France. ’  Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 91 pp352-406.

Kauft, Bruce 1987.  Managing Sex and Anger: Tobacco and Kava Use Among the Gebusi  of PNG  in Drugs In Western Pacific Societies: Relations of Substance ASAO Monograph No11 Editor Lamont Lindstrom (1987).

Kennedy. John. 1978.  The Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre: Beer, Ecology, and Social Organization.  University of California, Los Angles 

Turner, Victor, 1969. The Ritual Process. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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No anthropologist thinks of Margaret Mead, the famous US anthropologist, as providing information on tobacco as a transformative agent in the economic and social life of a ‘primitive society’. The idea sounds out of character for Margaret Mead; at odds with her training as a cultural anthropologist. Nevertheless, this happened, perhaps unconsciously.  In her book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies the back story that Mead provides for one of these societies, the Mundugumor, reveals drug production and exchange/trade associated with disruptive social and economic changes.

Mead courageously chose New Guineaas as her research setting. New Guineas is a Pacific Ocean  island about twice the size of California. It lies geographically to the east of the Malay Archipelago and to the north-east of Australia. Anthropologically, New Guinea i s  considered part of Melanesia, not Polynesia. Europeans first ‘discovered’ the island about the 16th century,  and since then New Guinea has had a mixed colonial history. As of 2012, the western half of the island comprises two Indonesian provinces: Papua and  West Papua. The eastern half has been a German colony, a League of Nations Protectorate, and an Australian colony. Now it is independent and known as Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Seen from above, PNG seems a  sea island paradise: sparkling seas,  coral atolls, mangrove-margined rivers, sandy palm-lined beaches.  But it has less idyllic aspects.  Much of the land is mountainous. Mists and clouds wrap their crests, and the mountains’ steep angles of ascent transform into equally precipitous descent into deep, narrow valleys. These hold isolated and culturally-diverse societies who cultivate small food gardens  Warfare is common there, as is sorcery.

Beyond the jungle-covered mountains lie wide stretches of crocodile- infested swamps and almost-uninhabitable grasslands. Strong and swift rivers, rich in fish, cut  through this terrain. One of the largest rivers is the Sepik. Occasional villages dot its bank and also those of tributary rivers.  But no roads reach these places. Transport is by raft or long, shallow, dugout canoes. Tracks do exist through the swamps, but their whereabouts is tightly held for fear that cannibals or head-hunters could use them for raiding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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