Archive for the ‘Creating a socially shared reality’ Category

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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However, many individuals at the time of analyses and since, were unhappy with the finding of nicotine as the active force in the drug. Among other anomalies (such as the tip-toeing mice in Post Five), nicotine did not match with the second effect of pituri on users: that pituri made them drunk, or, to use a more inclusive term, it altered the users’ state of consciousness. This troubled two scientists, Johnston and Cleland In 1933/4 they jointly authored a review on the literature which detailed pituri consumption up to that date. In this, Johnson and Cleland suggested that nicotine and nor- nicotine might not constitute pituri’s active ingredient at all. Instead, they opted for one or more of the tropane family of alkaloids: hyoscine, scopolamine, hyoscyamus, nor-hyoscyamus, anabasine and atropine.

The Beat ‘generation’ of writers, including the Beat Poets and Carlos Castaneda, made plants containing these chemicals famous: deadly night-shade, henbane, the devil’s apple, Jimson weed, mandrake, belladonna, datura. Their names resonate with ideas not only of altered consciousness (which would dovetail with the second effect of pituri) but with witchcraft, divination, hallucinations, shamanism, body/mind separation and soul flight. And at one time or another, social groups almost everywhere—Asia; Europe; Africa; and North, Middle and South America—sought to create these changes in themselves or to access these states, by utilizing tropane-containing plants.

So Johnson and Cleland’s idea was not an off -the- wall proposition. In fact, tropane alkaloids do exist in the roots of D. .hopwoodii plants, but not in the leaves and young shoots which compose the drug pituri. In fact if tropane alkaloids had been present in the drug itself it would have been impossible to use in the Central Australian deserts as described. The effects tropane alkaloids have on the human eye would not permit it.

Atropine, a representative member of the tropane group, is the chemical ophthalmologists and eye surgeons use to enlarge the iris (the lens part of the the eye) for diagnostic purposes. With atropine use, blinding light assaults the naked retina. Even a wet and soggy Melbourne day would have too much light for an ‘atropined’ eye, let alone a long distance march under the merciless desert sun. So for the time being at least I rejected tropane alkaloids as the active ingredient in pituri,.


All this while I pursued other avenues of enquiry about pituri’s mysterious ingredient. Luckily, the Queensland Museum had a pristine, unopened package of pituri, still woven about with natural fibers and human hair. It was old. The museum acquired it in 1901, making the age of its plant material even older again. Dr W. Griffin, a colleague of mine and an expert in pharmacognosy, agreed to analyze this . Next, I turned to the plant from which Aboriginal people produced their drug:that is  Duboisia hopwoodii. Could this be the source of the anomaly, or the means of pinpointing it, I wondered? I reasoned that D.hopwood1i,being a native Australian plant possibilypoisoned ‘Western’ grazing animals, i.e sheep and cattle. So I leafed through plant toxicology records.

After finalizing these tasks, I had little doubt that the prepared pituri did contained nicotine and nor-nicotine, and not tropane alkaloids. Dr W. Griffith’s analysis had revealed only the normal break-down product of nicotine and nor-nicotine. Similarly, Government plant toxicity records  indicated that the D.howoodii plants from which Aboriginal people prepared pituri contained nicotine and nor-nicotine in the plant leaves and stems: no tropanes (and see below).

Resolving the nicotine versus tropane alkaloid controversy pleased me greatly, Nevertheless, there remained those awkward statements: ‘glazed eyes’; ‘the stupid expression of the opium user’, ‘a sort of coma’, ‘comatose’ ‘a dreamy voluptuous sensation’ etc. These did not sound like nicotine effects to me. . Then, the inappropriateness behind my thinking kicked in. I should not be cogitating in terms of how Westerners used nicotine. I should examine nicotine use in its birth-place—the Americas. I resorted, in short, to the use of ethnographic analogy as I discussed in my First Post.

This was the clincher. The indigenous peoples of the Americas deployed nicotine (in the form of tobacco) in some strikingly similar ways to Aboriginal Australians consuming pituri. ‘The natives used tobacco to relieve physical stress and to intoxicate themselves’, wrote a Spanish priest soon after first contact between European and Indigene. Fortunately, early European researchers took care to record how the indigenous inhabitants interpreted their own behaviour in using tobacco. They believed it facilitated achieving an ecstatic or mystical state. In this condition users communicated with gods. and supplicated them for cures, advice and direction.

Native Americans employed tobacco in many forms—often (perhaps always) mixed with alkali ash, as native Australian people had done. They drank tobacco solutions; they licked  tobacco , they sucked tobacco (both of which seems a better description of what happens when either tobacco or pituri are reported to be chewed) they applied tobacco in pastes to the skin through which it readily passed: Again  just as Australian Aboriginal people were doing in pasting the pituri quid behind their ears). Native Americans  snuffed tobacco up their nostrils; they applied to their eyes; they injected tobacco rectally via enemas. Of these many routes of administration, scholars think the earliest may have been tobacco mixed with alkali ash, then chewed or sucked as Aboriginal people did in Australia. This produces a gradual intoxication.

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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.

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