Archive for the ‘Customising state of consciousness’ Category

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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The earliest Pecos cave paintings are roughly contemporaneous with the Egyptian pyramids.

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The definition of a phenomena does not lie in an inner quality that endures and gives substance to a phenomena; it derives from its boundaries and limits, the parameters beyond which it becomes something else (Murphy 1980:96).

Drug use involves two factors which determine all human behavior. One is biology—the natural rules that govern living matter in all its forms and phenomena. The second is culture—the ideals, beliefs, practices, history and experiences of a particular social group. Unless accidentally exposed to psychoactive substances, biology and culture  link inseparably in drug use. Consequently, in looking at the causes and results of drug consumption, it is sometimes difficulty to assign priority in terms of influence to either agent. And both  have their share of fierce determinists —individuals and institutions which  over-simplify the issue of drug use and reduce it to either biological factors or socio-cultural ones. This complicates thinking or writing about drug consumption.

The biological consequences of drug consumption occur because psychoactive substances have major effects on the actions of the Central Nervous System (CNS) . They speed it up, or slow it down, or cause it to hallucinate. In human beings the CNS is unique.  It is the principal coordinator and director of all the activities and organs of  the human body, including heart, liver, kidneys, lungs and, in the brain,  the hypothalamus, the cerebral cortex and the limbic subsystem. Hence all drug use entails a real potential for harm.

But the CNS is also the part of our body that makes us human beings. The CNS enables us to experience emotions, to correlate and integrate information, reason abstractly and think creatively, processes not shared by other animals. (Levine 1978:342). Drug  consumption affects these abilities. It takes us away from the general norm we experience in our alert, waking hours. It changes our moods, our capacities for action,  our analytical and reasoning abilities our  orientation to the world outside ourselves. In short, drug consumption alters our consciousness.

Culturally, humans generally seemed to have regarded changing states of consciousness as a good thing.  We know this because people since ancient times have sought to alter consciousness. To achieve it, they used breathing exercises, drumming, whirling, dancing, steam baths, the hypnotic induction of a trance, floatation chambers, isolation, fasting, chanting, meditation and more. What these techniques have in common is that they eliminate the sensory input, or they render it monotonous or meaningless. Without this input, everyday reality and critical self-awareness lift away and the normal mind slips into illusions and dreamlike fantasies: that is, into an altered state of consciousness.

Most of these techniques require time, learning and practice. In many ethical systems such self-discipline legitimizes or sanctifies the resulting change of consciousness and visions that may occur.  Others want the same result effortlessly and rapidly, without the disciplined effort. Drugs make  perfect tools for this. And  because we are thinking, reasoning beings we understand a further ability drug use provides.  By choosing to consume a specific drug, we can customize our altered state of consciousness. Do we want to reduce unwanted levels of activity and feelings of anxiety and nervousness and  increase our feelings of pleasure? Then we choose from among the depressants the one our culture endorses. It might be alcohol or barbiturates, opiates, glues, anesthetics like ether, nicotine in very large doses or kava (Piper methysticum).  Some drugs in this group, like the opiates, also relieve pain (Emboden 1979; Nowlis 1975).

On the other hand, we might the need to feel energized and powerful, to banish fatigue and depression—for a golf game perhaps. Taking stimulants does this by increasing  CNS activity. So we select, according to our culture, from among amphetamines,  cocaine, qat (Catha edulis)  betel nut and nicotine in low doses, caffeine and its derivative theophylline, and the sources  in which these occur, tea, coffee, kola (Cola nitida) and  chocolate (Theobroma cacao).

Or we can choose from among  a third group of drugs, the hallucinogens. These provide us with greatly altered perceptions of time, space or color. Often feelings of depersonalization and ‘soul flight’ accompany these visions. This class of drugs includes LSD  (lysergic acid diethylamide), peyote (Lophophora  williamsii), certain mushrooms such as the Psilocybe genera  and fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), marihuana or hashish  (Cannabis species), and a group of chemicals called the  tropane alkaloids.

Culture phones in the order, drugs and biology deliver the result.


I did  not always think about drugs in this nuanced manner. My  family was steeped in biological determinism,  although we would never have recognized ourselves in this description.  After World War II, I was part of the wave  of young Australians desperate to get out of Australia, to leave sport and sportsmen far behind, and soak up ‘culture’  where it lived: overseas.  My father, a kidney surgeon in Brisbane, recommended I finance myself by first obtaining a pharmacy degree, arguing  that science lay at the bottom of all the things that  intrigued me: ‘These arty-farty  topics—art, history, emotion, poetry—what are they at a fundamental level, but  human cell-to-cell communication, mediated by biology. Chose pharmacy. Who knows where it will take you?’

‘Out of home for sure’, I thought

Pharmacy  was stressful but not quite as pettifogging as I had feared. There was the effort of learning thousands of  drug doses: at least two for each therapeutic substance.  The minimum was the least amount required to bring about the desired effect on the human body, the maximum, the largest amount it was safe to use to achieve the wanted physiological effect.  What gave this knowledge a nerve-wracking, ulcer-producing significance for the pharmacist was the fact that if a patient received an overdose, legal blame fell upon the pharmacist who dispensed the drug, not the doctor who prescribed it. So I was very aware of the consequences of drug use.

But aside from such finicky matters,  I was intrigued to discover the millennium–old history of many plant drugs, and  the degree to which they continue to have validity today in one form or another. And I glimpsed a further dimension. Until this point, I assumed drugs to be the active agents in drug use.  It is the form of language we use that provides  this impression; particularly with drugs that alter consciousness. Drugs ‘alter’ behavior, ‘attack’ vulnerable groups, ‘promote’ aggression, ‘interfere with’ or ‘block’ other responses, ‘disrupt’ or ‘ruin’ family life  etc etc.. Nowlis1975:13).

The absurdity of this thinking burst upon me when my first job as a qualified pharmacist introduced me to ether-using customers. These were invariably elderly, semi-destitute, Northern Irish Catholic immigrants to Australia.  My boss was  from the same ethnic group, (although a generation or two younger), and was  familiar with  the ins-and-outs of ether intoxication.  Women and some men users sniffed the drug, he said; this was considered genteel. But ether could also be swallowed—a repugnant and gorge-invoking act which asserted both masculinity and courage,  Ether was extremely inflammable, . Not only did you have to be cautious getting it into your mouth, but once you had swallowed the ether—a  difficult and unpleasant task for anyone—you had to be careful to break wind or belch with the relevant orifice pointing away from open fires.

Mind you,’ my boss continued, ‘sniffing ether began as a  refined, ladies pastime; it circulated around at quilting bees in the Deep South of the US. Then a few doctors began sniffing it, because ether chemistry allows you to pass  from sober to drunk  to cold sober again in 15 minutes flat. Doctors could fit it in between seeing patients, almost. But in Northern Ireland it really took off for economic reasons. The British raised the tariff on booze, and the very poorest inhabitant there, the Catholics, had to switch from alcohol which they preferred, to the cheaper ether. It was commonly said that if you smelt a man’s breath, you knew his religion’.

This was an ‘anthropological’ moment for me—an instant when I recognized that a phenomena in my own society was  not ‘common sense’ as I had though.  It was bizarre,  illogical. Psycho-active drugs don’t do  things to people. It’s the reverse: people do things with drugs. In the case of the ether users, they  had chosen to alter their state of consciousness and experience the pleasure that accompanied this action. They did this by adopting a novel psychoactive drug which additionally expressed for them their group identity.  And  by selecting this particular drug, ether consumers were exploiting some of the drug’s other  characteristics: the drug’s volatility allowed  users to sniff the vapor, thus celebrating the users’ gentility, because it echoed the middle and upper class contemporary use of smelling salts;  at the same time, ether’s flammability and digestive limitations made swallowing it an apt metaphor for fearlessness and determination.

In other words, ether was a tool. People chose to consume it to alter their state of consciousness. The additional physiological effects which they had deliberately ‘wished upon themselves’, were then employed  as additional tools to make additional social connections and comments—a good example of culture and biology in harness.


My interest in mind-altering substances might have stopped there, but life over-ran my plans. I did get out of Australia, and note the idiom: somehow, nobody of my generation simply ‘left’.  As a ‘cash cow’ pharmacy scored high; I sopped up culture in Europe for two great  years and then married a New York lawyer; a man  with my interests, a quicksilver mind,  but unfortunately a weak heart.  Then, circumstances changed.  My husband died, and I returned to Australia with my children, needing the income I could earn as a pharmacist.

My parents were delighted to see me back, each in their own way. Dad picked out several small second-hand  cars, any one of which he decided was suitable for a widow. My mother wanted to throw a party for me immediately ‘while you still have your accent and pretty New York clothes,. Indeed, I felt going back to pharmacy was a tremendous reversal: away with the pretty clothes just as Mother had foreseen; on with the white coat and the biological sciences. However, despite its long- familiar shortcomings, my city, Brisbane,  presented me with a hitherto unachievable opportunity.

In Manhattan,  my husband and I had become enthralled with tribal  or non-literate art. We could only look: it was too expensive for us to buy.  But back in Brisbane, I found that not only could I could  afford—in a small way—to collect Aboriginal and Pacific tribal artifacts,  but that I could complete a PhD in Anthropology, part-time. This would be a good foundation for understanding the context of tribal art.

At this point, my intention was only to enrich my inner life—draining away fast in Brisbane pharmacies. But, ironically, my  interest in psycho-active substances also revived. I  found that in Australia, anthropology courses not only included ethnographies—recent or present-day studies of small scale traditional societies—but also material from archaeology. Once the domain of  ‘stones, bones and pottery’, archaeology today attempts to describe the life styles of past communities. To my surprise, both these sources,  ancient sites and living ethnographies, are studded with references to psycho-active drug consumption from the deep archaeological past to the present.

From here,  sprang my deep interest in prehistoric drugs and the uses to which people put them.

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