Archive for the ‘Drugs’biological consequences’ Category

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

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

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


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

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



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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I saw  this new research—animal models of drug abuse together with the existence of a reward structure in the brain—as an entirely novel paradigm, full of promise in a world where the old model was visibly failing.

Below I have summarized the two models as I understand them to be. This  will be followed by discussion of what I regard as significant aspects of the neuroscience model.


The diagram below shows the differences between the two models as I understand them.



EXPLANATION OF  WHY PSYCHO-ACTIVE DRUG PLANTS IMMEDIATELY  REWARD  USERS No explanation Drug plants contain chemical analogues of brain neurotransmitters; drugs can replace the latter, and  act on reward strata in human (+ animal)  brains.
INHERENT PATTERN OF DRUG USE  Moderate drug use until and unless addiction develops  Being biological in origin, initial drug use is reinforced, leading to  unrestrained drug use, in absence of existing or imposed restraints 
ROLE OF SOCIO-CULTURAL FACTORS INCL. LEGAL, ECONOMIC + PERSONAL  Adverse socio-cultural factors incl. individual psycho- pathologies lead to 

Excessive Drug  Use/Abuse


Positive socio-cultural factors +  accurate drug information alter   unrestrained drug use toModerate Drug Use 

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As the prehistoric period begins to close up everywhere—even in the isolated crannies and corners of the world—millennia of prehistoric drug use have left us with no understanding at all of why people use psychoactive dugs. Human beings eat and drink only those substances which nourish their bodies, drugs excepted. They don’t eat soil or grasses  except under bizarre conditions. A half answer might be that we use drugs because drugs satisfy us just as food does. But this begs the question, why should feelings of reward attach to drugs when those same feelings do not attach to any substance accept those that our bodies need ?

In a reversal of natural sequencing, the answer to ‘why do individuals use drugs?’ became clear  following research into ‘why do some individuals overuse drugs?’

 This research began in the USA in the 1960s, following the influx of what seemed excessive student drug use and multiple drug use on US campuses. At the time, the current explanatory paradigm emphasized the causal relationship between drug seeking behaviour and physical dependence, a physiological state which could be empirically verified. Accordingly, early experiments used as subjects already drug dependent animals; it being both unethical and difficult to use people in this type of investigation.

Laboratory animals quickly learn to self administer most of the drugs commonly used by individuals for non‑ medical, recreational purposes. These included  opoids, barbiturates, alcohol, anesthetic gases, local anesthetics, volatile solvents, and central nervous system stimulants like  phencyclidine, nicotine and caffeine. However, animals avoided using substances ignored by humans. This indicated, at first thought, a causal relationship between physical  dependence and drug‑seeking behaviour.

 But logic and  empirical observation led to further investigation.  It revealed that some drugs which do not produce physical  dependence nevertheless produce drug‑seeking behaviour in  experimental animals.  Moreover, it was realized that, even with drugs that produce physical  dependence, the initial drug‑seeking behaviour could not be  attributed to physical dependence since this takes time to  become established.  The general text book Goodman and  Gilman’s Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics (1985) describes  this research thus:


Such observations suggest that pre‑existing psychopathology is not a requisite for initial or even continued drug taking, and that drugs themselves are powerful reinforcers, even in the absence of physical dependence (Gilman et al. 1985:534).

  Although  wild animals do not have comparable access to drugs, there  are numerous examples of them ingesting psychoactive  substances.  There is a close association between reindeer and the psychoactive fly‑agaric mushroom in Siberia (Furst  1972:101).  It is commonly accepted that grazing animals  prefer fermented fallen fruit and that birds sometimes select nectars which intoxicate.  Altogether, there is  increasing evidence that animals seek out psychoactive  experiences.  Researchers from the University of California  claim knowledge of more than 2,000 cases of animals  consuming psychoactive substances, of which 310 were  investigated and their use found to be ‘intentional and  addictive’ (Greenberg 1983:300).


Simultaneous with the above research, a rush of interest began in the newly unfolding science of neurobiology. Instead of electricity firing the brain as formerly thought, scientists discovered that central nervous system activity depended upon least fifty chemical compounds named neurotransmitters. The latter controlled and coordinated flows of information between the  neurons within the brain, including data about  emotions, memories and pleasures.

 The main chemical transmitters  include dopamine, acetylcholine, nor epinephrine, serotonin,  gamma‑amino butyric acid, and the recently discovered opoid  peptides. Each possesses a specific molecular and spatial  arrangement which enables it to ‘plug’ into a receptor in a  target neuron, rather like a key into a lock.  The neuron is thus activated, information passes from one neuron to the  next, and the neurotransmitter, its function accomplished, decays.

 This may seem far distant from  packing a cone or sipping gin and tonic.  Here is the connection. Humans and non- human animals are not the only natural phenomena containing neurotransmitters. Some plants contain (almost) identical chemicals.  A unique situation results. The nicotine in  tobacco, for example, fits receptors designed for  the acetylcholine receptor and, once plugged into the receptor, nicotine  activates the same processes that acetylcholine can activate. Similarly, morphine from opium poppies fits receptors  for the body’s endogenous opiates… and so on. 

However, one difference exists  between plant chemicals and the mammal neurotransmitters of  which they are analogues. Plant neurotransmitters are  much more resistant to inactivation by biotransformation  processes. Therefore plant neurotransmitters often become potent neurotoxic  agents (Kosterlitz and Hughes 1978:412).  Thus, the effect of  psychoactive drugs is to potentiate or inhibit  neurotransmitters, or alter their synthesis, storage or  release.  By this means drug use modifies memory, learning,  emotions, mood, and perceptions of self and others (Levine  1978:344). 

That leaves unanswered the question, “why do drugs make us feel good?”


Furst, P. (1972). Flesh of the gods: The ritual use of hallucinogens.London. George Allen & Unwin.

Greenberg, M. (1983). Natural highs in natural habitats. Science News, 124, 300-301.

Gilman, A.G., Goodman, L.S., Rall, T.W, & Murad, F. (1985). Goodman and Gilman’s pharmacological basis of therapeutics. New York. MacMillan.

Kosterlitz, H.W., and Hughes, J. (1978). Endogenous opoid peptides. In J. Fishman (Ed) The bases of addiction: Report of the Dahlem Workshop on the bases of addiction. Abakon. Verlagagesellschaft.

Levine, R.R. (1978). Drug actions and reactions. Boston. Little Brown and company.

Schuster, C. (197) Drugs as reinforcers in monkey and man. Pharmacological Reviews 27:511-251

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Controversy has arisen concerning the spectre of prehistoric ‘drug’ use despite ample evidence of the ritual and medicinal importance of such psychoactive plants in many Indian cultures in theNew World. Politically correct or not, the use of these plants was part and parcel of shamanistic ritual in theLower Pecosas elsewhere in the hunter-gatherer world.                                                                                                                   

www. texasbeyondhistory (UniversityofTexa at Austin)

My pituri research delighted me. I had identified something previously unsuspected (by non Aboriginal people) about Aboriginal culture: the pharmacognostic skills Aboriginal people displayed with the drug pituri, its plant basis, and its effects on human physiology.  Simultaneously, this provided a new dimension for thinking about Aboriginal exploitation of  land and  flora, and the mechanisms of Aboriginal  trade.  In  1983 the Universityof Sydneypublished my pituri research as a monograph entitled This Precious Foliage: A Study of the Aboriginal Psycho-active Drug Pituri. 

Given this, I felt confident that anthropology and pharmacognosy were not  mutually exclusive. I could continue in this field, and, if necessary, deal with academic opposition by mounting a persuasive claim that  the  Department of Anthropology was too narrow in its approach.  So I turned to two other examples of prehistoric drug use. In both cases, white observers singled out for notice among the jumble, the blood and the confusion of colonization, native use of psychoactive drugs.

During researching pituri, I had read Peter Furst’s book  Hallucinogens and Culture (1976). It drew my attention to the people of the Lower Pecos River in Texas.  What particularly  took my interest were the similarities between Pesos people and Australian Aborigines. Both were desert-dwelling  hunter- gatherers with sparse populations; both consumed  a local psychoactive substance;  both drugs were toxic with similar effects on human beings;  for both communities their socially-sanctioned drug use considerably pre-dated European ettlement;  And in both communities, (but for different reasons) European contact terminated consumption of their  favoured drug.  

Because of these parallels, I decided to collate all available information on Pecos drug use and contrast it with Aboriginal consumption with pituri. I though this migh  highlight missing events in one or other of the early colonial records of the two drug-using societies.  What was done in one society and not in the other perhaps ,or conversely, what might—must—have taken place in each society yet went unrecorded by white colonialists.


 Climate changes experienced in the Old World during the last Ice Age account for Ice Age people settling in what is now Texas.  Falling sea levels in the Bering Strait  between Siberia and Alaska created a land bridge between  north-east Asia and north America.  Probably before 15 000 B.P (that is Before the Present)  people from Siberia on the Asia side began spreading,  inch by inch, and mile by mile, across the  newly exposed land. Gradually, these ‘Paleo-Indians’ entered a New World, teeming with birds, animal and plants, with great rivers and soaring mountains, but, so far as is presently  known, devoid of human beings.

The cultural baggage the travellers carried with them was what they and their forebears had known and lived with in the Northern Hemisphere  of the Old World. Three components were significant:  Both peoples practiced hunter-gatherer way of life in which stalking and killing mega fauna supplied most of their food. Secondly, Ice-Age hunters turned to shamansfor their  emotional and spiritual needs.  Finally, sacred narcotic or hallucinogenic plants enabled the shamans to contact or ‘channel’ spirit beings–gods, images and animal spirits. These spirits provided advice and guidance on hunting and other issues. 

In 1970 Professor Richard Evans Schultes, at that time Director of Harvard’s Botanical Museum and the foremost scholar in ethno-pharmacology  got together with Weston La Barre, a leading scholar in the anthropology and psychology of religion. They believed that the newly arrived Ice-Age Siberian migrants in northernAmerica would have soon set about identifying  local psychoactive substances in  the unfamiliar environment.   This must have occurred, they argued, for the incomers to maintain their belief system and way of life: to facilitate shamans in entering  trance states, to see and contact spirits to manipulate the animal world, to advise and influence others, and  cure social and physical ills. (Furst 1976:2)

That is what happened with one small band of Paleo-Indian hunters and food gatherers. They moved into, and onto, what is now known as the Lower Pecos River area in Texas, near that State’s border with northeast Mexico. Probably soon after their arrival, the group identified a local psychoactive substance. This was the poisonous, dark red, seed of the Texas Mountain Laurel bush (Sophora secundiflora),  known as mescal bean  or the Texas Mountain Laurel. (N.B. this is not mescaline)  This plant belongs to the Pea family, and it is native to the  vast  Chihuahuan Desert in North Mexico andTexas.

Because mescal bean has no social or economic importance today,  little on-going research  about the drug occurs. In 1957 (p. 708) the anthropologist  La Barre described mescal bean as ‘a violent and dangerous substance’- a description both graphic and accurate. Chemically, its active ingredient, cytisine, is a ‘cousin’ of nicotine and it effects human physiology in an  extremely similar manner. Toxic effects include:

nausea and vomiting, dilation of the pupils, tachycardia [excessive rapidity and irregularity of the heart-beat] followed by dizziness, mental confusion, muscular incoordination and weakness, and convulsions; respiratory paralysis may occur leading to death by paralysis (Martindales Extra Pharmacopoeia p1746)  

From this technical pharmacological description,  mescal bean  is not a ‘true’ hallucinogen; that is, it does not  invariably  produced hallucinations; however, some observers of mescal bean  consumption dispute this. Nevertheless, one way or another,  mescal bean certainly alters consciousness. The apparent pay-off  for consuming this drug lay not only in  the experience of intoxication, but in the drug’s capacity to produce, or aid in producing, the visions necessary for shamanic rituals and  ceremonies.



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Aiston focuses  on the centers  where pituri traded, and the  informality of the exchange (see map).

 The great trade routes that met and crossed at Kopparra murra, the Kopperamanna of the white people, was one of the big distributing centres, although the pituri had probably changed hands several times before it got there. Crowds would be waiting at Annandale, on the Herbert, [that is the GeorginaMulliganRiversystem] for the collectors [of pituri] to come in, and getting as much as they could, would make off to Birdsville. Bedourie, Urandangie, and down the Herbert; here  other people would be waiting to take it down the Diamantina to Goyder’s Lagoon, where others in turn would be waiting, gathered in from east and west, some from as far as the Darling, and in good seasons from the lower Finke. I have seen over 500 Aborigines waiting at Goyder’s Lagoon.

 Bartering started at the first camp that was met after leaving the pituri grounds; after everybody had rested and fed, one of the party would throw down a bag in front of the assembled camp: anyone who wishes to buy would throw down, perhaps a couple of boomerangs, perhaps a grinding mill, or whatever he could spare; the pituri seller would leave his bag until something that he wanted was offered: this he would accept by picking it up and the buyer would then pick up the bag of pituri. Perhaps another member of the pituri party would see something in the goods offered and would throw down another bag; if the buyers were not satisfied they would pick up their offerings, and if the seller was not satisfied he would pick up his bag of pituri. The camps near the pituri grounds never became big markets because the pituri was more valuable the farther away it was traded. The near camps were only used to get enough utensils and weapons for use when traveling in the more profitable markets.

For an anthropologist like myself, Aiston’s  description of pituri trading shocks deeply. In my profession, it is axiomatic that ‘primitive’ trade  is organized quite differently from that of the market place. The relationship between the two traders themselves matters deeply; what is exchanged far less so. Marshall Sahlins, then Professor of  Anthropology at Universityof Chicagowrote in his seminal work, Stone Age Economics

 …trade is an exclusive relation with an outside party. …The trade in canalized in parallel and insulated transactions between particular pairs…social relations, not prices, connect up ‘buyers’ and ‘sellers’

Christmas gift giving in western societies cultures provides a useful analogy for primitive trade.  Here there is a scrupulous graduation of social appropriateness in gifts between parents and children, between adult family members, between family and close non-family friends, right down to possible exchanges between an employer and a valued employee. This celebrates ties to meaningful others, and indicates hope and intention that these relationships will continue. In traditional societies all exchange and trade resembles this pattern, and its adaptive value among of myriad of small, separate groups is evident. It encourages peaceful relationships, and it enlarges the number of individuals or groups  who can be approached in times of need or from whom marriage partners might be sought.

 As if to emphasize the universality of this form of  ‘stone age trade’  Sahlins notes only two exceptions to his generalization: and one is the above account by Aiston of pituri  trading  (?: 298-99)  where haggling, non-partnered exchanges, definite markets, individual traders and something approaching auctions exist when pituri changes hands.  

 The third informant, Walter Roth, practiced medicine in a north-west Queensland. Consequently his account of  the circulation of pituri came from a different geographical location: north of the pituri lands, not south of them as were those of Gason and Aiston. He focuses on the great trading cycles held annually in north-west-central Queensland.  Roth believed these ‘walk-abouts’ in which members of tribal groups rigidly followed certain traditional trade routes’ only began when fresh pituri became available for trade. Roth’s data intrigues with its list of  participating tribes and the items they brought to trade and obtained in return (see previous map). For example:

In the Upper Georgina District, the Yaroinga have trade relations on the north with the Workia, whom they met atLakeNash, Austral Downs. and Camooweal, and from whom they get pearl-shell, eagle-hawk feathers, spears, stone-knives, large koolamons, human hair belts, white-men’s knives, blankets, shirts, trousers, as well as pituri,  koolamons, emu-feathers, etc.

 On the south the Yaroinga are in communication with the Undekerebina natives of the Toko Ranges, who come up to them either direct to Gordon’s Creek, or else indirectly, up the Georgina, via Glenormiston: the Toko people come with pituri, opossum-twine, blankets, etc., and take back ochre, boomerangs. stone-knives, human-hair belts, etc.

Note that  while the pituri trade included some raw materials such bird-feathers and shell, most components in Roth’s descriptions consist of value-added products.  Stone axes, pecked grinding stones, koolamons  (for storage), packaged barley seed and fish flour, for example,  possessed an added labour component. These low technology trade items were fore-runners of many goods listed on today’s stock exchange: minerals (ochres and gypsum) a mind-altering drug (pituri)  weapons, (spears and shields) prestige items (eagle feathers and human hair belts) food technology items (koolamons and pecked grinding stones), food and even fast food (barley seeds and fish flour).  The  rights to preform particular songs and corroborees passed along these routes too. The songs and dances etc. were not important ritual ones, but often a type of commentary on singular and secular matters, sometimes amusing ones.

 A high demand for pituri  existed. Roth claimed that the  presence of pituri was a precondition for the commencement of the great trading cycles in northwest-centralQueensland. Aiston hints at the same thing with his remark ‘crowds would be waiting for the collectors [of pituri ]to come in.’ According to Roth, ‘local Blacks will give anything they possess for it from their women downwards’. Others made similar comments:

The pituri is an extensive article of trade among the Blacks, the happy possessors being able to obtain in exchange for it any article dear to the Aboriginal heart from their less fortunate black brethren (Bedford 1887:111).

 It (pituri) was and still is among the remnants of theDiamantinatribes the ‘gold’ standard for exchange or barter purposes. A seventy-pound bag of un-dried pituri leaf spelt untold wealth. The Murranudda and messmate tribes bartered spiritedly for bags of it and used it as currency among less fortunate messmates. The small oval bags made of human hair. containing a couple of pounds of the plant, bought two wives, husbands or many goods (Duncan Kemp 1964:284).

 Given that demand was high, how much pituri was in circulation?  This is hard to know. dGason stated that each expedition member returned home carrying 701bs (32kg) of the drie. packaged drug. A large pituri basket in the QueenslandMuseumis looks compatible with loads of this size The drug observed by Gason was packaged in 3 lb containers.  Gason had only to count the containers and multiply by three to arrive at a figure of 70 1bs per person.

Although I saw no reason to question Gason’s figure of 70 lbs of pituri per person, a feeling of uncertainty arose when trying to calculate the number of quids. The historical record speaks of the quantities used as ‘a good pinch’. ‘a spoonful’, ‘a walnut sized piece’. Experimenting with loose tobacco, I estimated that one dose consisted of about the same volume of material as that existing in two cigarettes. This means that the number of quids in 701bs would be about 32,000 [re-check math]. This seems a large number in view of Gason’s report that supplies became exhausted after some months, even granted that a further distribution to tribes in the south took place.

Perhaps there is some mistake in my calculations. Certainly, there is much missing information here. The  size of the pituri expedition obviously determined how much pituri  went south with the returning Dieri.  But no one thought to record how many men made the trip. Gason states elsewhere that 80 Dieri men went annually on the long  journey south for the special ochre which they then used in exchange for pituri. This means that the tribe was able to mount an expedition of this size, not of course that it did. Assuming then, that expedition members numbered somewhere between ten and eighty, the weights of pituri carried home would range between 320kg and 2560kg. These figures, however, represent dried material. What was the  weight of fresh material needed to produce these dried weights ?. Again, that is unknown, but it must have been very much larger.  

And these figures pertain just to the amount of pituri the Dieri men acquired.  However  history records that  the Wonkonguru  (Aiston 193 7:3 7 2) and Yantruwanta (Howitt 1904:7 11), also undertook pituri expeditions to the Mulligan in the same period of time. Perhaps others tribes did too. Additionally there are the large numbers  getting Mulligan-Georgina pituri in the bartering process at regional centres: ‘up to 500’ Aiston describes at one gathering place. And it is quite likely that the distribution of pituri over Queenslandand parts of the Northern Territory, chronicled by Roth in 1897, was at least partially operating at the time Gason wrote in 1882. One way or another, it seems clear that people acquired a considerable amounts of pituri made from D. hopwoodii plants growing in the Mulligan-Georgina area.

 But that raises yet another area of uncertainty. D. hopwoodii plants grew widely but sparsely, on the tops of sandhills in the  desert interior. It seems impossible that the plant’s natural pattern of growth could supply enough raw material to support the trade. Unless of course there exiisted d some form of human intervention with the plant.

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Even though I was a working pharmacist, clearly nicotine chemistry held  secrets I knew nothing of—facts non-Western traditional societies obviously had discovered and exploited for generations.. I checked out nicotine in The Pharmacological Basis of Therapeutics, the international reference book used by  medical schools.

 This held several facts of which I was ignorant; one was nicotine’s  extreme toxicity.

 It  is  highly toxic drug acting with a speed comparable to cyanide. The acutely fatal dose for a man is about 60 mg, and some cigarettes contain 20 to 30 mg. In practice, death seldom follows  because vomiting intervenes.(Goodman & Gilman 1965:578-585).

 Another fact unknown to me was nicotine’s  ability to pass readily through the skin and mucosa . This explained placing the quid behind the ear. And finally I lit upon the explanation for nicotine’s seemingly contradictory effects when used by the indigenous peoples of bothAustraliaand theAmericas: :

 Whereas most drugs are stimulants or depressants, nicotine is both; that is, it is biphasic, offering the user a choice of physiological states. The Western cigarette smoker uses it as a stimulant, and here nicotine can produce an increased fl of adrenaline, a rise in blood pressure, a mild feeling of euphoria, a more economical use of fluid in the body and a decrease in hunger contractions. With a greater dose, the depressive phase begins; adrenaline production ceases, blood pressure drops sharply, stupor ensues, followed by nicotine catalepsy, which is a trance-like state with marked insensibility to pain. Finally, a curare-like paralysis develops and death follows due to respiratory failure (Goodman & Gilman 1965:578 58 

 This technical information filled in the last piece of the puzzle about the nature of pituri. What remained to research was the drug’s distribution and production. These proved as ethnographically interesting and chemically impressive as the quest for the identity of pituri had been.


 Exactly where the pituri plant grew remained a mystery for several decades.

 The natives bring large shells from the NW and tell mysterious legends of a place called Peecheringa, the natives of which carry on an extensive commerce in a narcotic they called pecherie

 reported the explorer Hodgkinson (1877:518), in his search for the elusive drug.  The Aborigines were willing to give him some of the prepared pituri, taking it from a trench in the sand where it was undergoing a drying process, but they were not prepared to show him where he could find it himself.  Eventually, on August 17th, almost by chance, and during a desperate search for water, Hodgkinson located the ‘pituri plant’  (that is, the Duboisia  hopwoodii plant from which Aboriginal  people madethe drug  pituri) . It grew on theMulliganRiverat latitude 22 52’ 51” and longitude38. 

Hodgkinson left a graphic account of people in the vicinity..

  The natives here appear to be divided into families bearing totems with the object of preventing marriage within certain degrees of consanguinity. …The features of many are by no means  unattractive. The nose is not unpleasantly broad. The forehead is high and broader and the mouth not so obtrusive as usual. Their manners are courteous. They ask permission to do or touch anything, and apparently have not seen whites, horses or bullocks before …

 The natives in their social intercourse treat each other with much generosity. Food seems fairly divided, by whomsoever procured, for, though they  no superabundance here, nothing is given to one without division among the others, and very frequently the original recipient retains the smallest share…

 From sundown until late at night the camp is alive with the merriment of children, the shrill cries of the women, and the crooning of corroborees  by the men. Before dawn, at intervals during the day and sometimes until a late hour at night, an incessant pounding of nardoo goes on, resembling nothing so much as the chipping of a stone-cut [pw1]


 By the time the British invadedAustralia,  pituri use had spread, at a minimum, from the above area throughout  500 000 sq km of inlandAustralia. This seems remarkable, consideringAustralia’s geography.Australia has no long, navigable rivers, unlike theUnited States, a country of comparable size. One would expect this to severely hinder the transportation of trade goods.   The lack of land receiving  a reasonable annual rainfall, and the fact that Australia contains five times more arid country than does theUnited Statesmust have further impeded the wide distribution of the drug which took place.     

 Three early settlers left accounts of how aboriginal societies overcame these problems. Each observer differed from the other two in occupation and level of education, which hopefully predisposed them to forming independent opinions.  Gason was a Mounted Police Officer in Lake Eyre ; an area  sometimes referred to as ‘The Dead Heart’ of  Australia because of its bone-dry, oven-hot deserts. Walter Roth was the son of a Jewish Hungarian patriot in exile in London. He was educated in Germanyand Franceand obtained a medical degree in London. In 1894 he accepted an invitation to serve as Surgeon at a number of isolated hospitals in the  north-west of Queensland, Australia. Roth developed a keen interest in ethnography and was to publish three volumes on Aboriginal life as he understood to be. Aiston was a store-keeper on the frontier of white settlement, where  ‘keeping a store’ meant so much more: the ability to outfit expeditions, supply rifles and ammunition, horse and camel saddles, to stock a cattle property with six months of provisions, and reliably advise travelers on the condition of the country ahead in terms of  floods, bush fires or tribal unrest.  Like Roth, he too was an keen ethnologist.

 In 1882  Gason,, stationed in theLake Eyreregion, reported:

 The Dieri tribe sends an expedition of able bodied men annually to the pituri country on the Herbert River in Queensland [i.e. the Georgina-Mulligan River basin] about 250 miles, having to pass through several hostile tribe on the journey—on their arrival at the pituri country, the leaves and the stems of the bush is (sic) picked carefully–small holes are sunk in the sand two foot deep and covered up with hot sand and baked. The pituri is allowed to remain in those holes until it is thought that all the sap has evaporated. It is then taken out, packed very neatly in netted bags and small wallaby skins each man carrying about seventy pounds weight.

  Great preparations are made by the tribe for the return of the pituri expedition. New worleys [shelters]are made, seeds of the season are stored for their fathers, brothers, husbands and friends.When such a party returned, its members were full of strange stories of battles they had fought, of tribes they had seen, men having toes behind their feet as well as in front, and all kinds of wild and extravagant reports.The pituri, although brought from so great a distance and  obtained under such is all gone after a few months, being bartered away to more southern tribes.

At least two other tribal groups in the same region dispatched expeditions northwards to obtain the drug.  All participants wore distinguishing ochre body markings; carried weapons, possibly a dozen spears plus a spear-thrower and perhaps a boomerang.  One or two men in each expedition probably carried a tool maintenance kit, including a stone core from which expedition members could manufacture new spear points when needed. Food and water were necessities the men had to find for themselves as they traveled; no sinecure in unfamiliar desert country. And on the mens’ heads rested the vital trade item: that which would gain them the precious pituri.  These were either slabs of sandstone rock  for grinding grass and plant seeds,  or ‘cakes’ of a special red ochre used for body paint, ceremonies, and  ‘magical charms’. Gason’s record states the ochre cakes were 70 to 80 lbs in weight when dry.

All participating tribes had several features in common, including pituri as a clan totem, and a shared mythological ‘track’.  The latter is a path or song-line  made by Creative Heroes in the past (i.e the Dream Time) as they traveled and formed the landscape. A track may cross any number of tribal borders. Persons who belonged to the one track by birth or inheritance belonged to branches of the one cult, and were normally friendly to each other. They had secret mutual claims to hospitality and protection. Consequently, travelers following the path of their totemic hero or heroes were free and safe in territory which was not their own, at least as far as the local groups of their own cult-totem were concerned. Bruce Chatwin made mythological tracks familiar to many in his famed book ‘Song Lines’

 George Aiston, the store-keeper, provides quite a different account of  pituri distribution than Gason does, even though both men covered approximately the same geographical area.  Aiston focuses  on the centers  where pituri traded, and the  informality of the exchange (see map).

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