Archive for the ‘manipulating others’ Category



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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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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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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