Archive for the ‘Individual drugs’ Category

It was the 1980’s, and  I had reached the point where my credibility as an anthropologist demanded I do field work. It would be something on drugs of course. But what exactly?

I decided to formulate some test hypotheses that would cover both social and biological aspects of drug consumption. My research into prehistoric drug use together with findings from ‘current’ neuropsychopharmacology (i.e. from the 1970’s -1980’s period)  would suggest these hypotheses. The  fact that I possessed the rare combination of both pharmacy and anthropology qualifications meant I had the chance to make a worthwhile contribution to an important issue of my time.

I ran into a problem straight away. I could find no references in popular culture of the 1980’s  to the neuroscience concept that drug addiction is a ‘relapsing’ brain disease like schizophrenia or diabetes; that even the though the initial act of consumption is entirely voluntary   brain disease develops over time and that without formal medical treatment, compulsive drug craving, seeking, and consuming take over (Leshner, 1990).

This  neuroscience discovery is, and remains, a gloomy finding. Al Gore might well think of it as another ‘Inconvenient Truth’  like ‘Climate Change’. Could I have been wrong in evaluating so highly the neuroscience research on psychoactive substances ? After all, I am a pharmacist not a pharmacologist. So it was possible the neuroscience findings held flaws I had missed.

Nevertheless, great synergy exists between patterns of prehistoric drug consumption and the neuroscience model of drug effects on individuals. A few examples make the point:   All else being equal, if human biology is capable of producing compulsive drug seeking and consumption, then you would expect to find drug plants among the earliest plants prehistoric people cultivated. Similarly, drugs should be  among the earliest items traded between different environments and populations. Finally, prehistoric populations with regional monopolies on drugs should demonstrate political and social changes forced upon them by the compulsive drug seeking from their addicted non-drug producing neighbours. See my earlier blogs for examples:

A. I. Leshner, “Science-Based Views of Drug Addiction and Its Treatment,” Journal of the American Medical Association 282 (1999): 1314­1316 (http://jama.ama-assn.org/issues/v282n14/rfull/jct90020.html

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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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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).

Please note: the above quote was in my previous post. It is repeated here because it should have been followed by the following paragraph:

The ‘reinforcing capacity of a drug’ became the term referring to a particular drug’s inherent capacity to induce animals to repeat actions which result in drug administration. The reinforcing factor appeared to differ for each drug. For example, under a that particular laboratory set-up, rats would press a bar 250 times to obtain caffeine, 4,000 times for heroin, but 10,000 consecutive times to obtain cocaine (Spotts and Shontz 1980:15).

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 agric mushroom in Siberia (Furst 1976:101). It is commonly accepted that grazing animals prefer fermented fallen fruit and that birds sometimes select nectars which intoxicate. Altogether, by the 1980s, increasing evidence demonstrated 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). And see next post.

About the same time as queries began about excessive drug seeking, a rush of interest grew in the unfolding science of neurobiology. Instead of electricity firing the brain as formerly thought, scientists discovered that central nervous system activity depended upon at least fifty chemical compounds academics 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 opioid 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. Human and non- human mammals 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 for each of those plants which contain chemical compounds which are analogous to brain neurotransmitters.

Olds, acknowledged now as one of the fathers of neuroscience, raised the suggestion that mammal brains (that is, those of human plus non-human mammals) might possess a ‘reward’ strata; Olds had in mind some sort of pay-off which would automatically follow mating, eating, and drinking, and thus encourage repetition of these acts. The concept of a reward structure gradually found acceptance, and in 1976 Olds suggested that drug use may also involve the neural substrate concerned with the brain reward system. Olds based this on the structural resemblances between psychoactive drugs and neurotransmitters, and the fact that drug use clearly reinforced further drug use.

Subsequent studies justify Old’s hypothesis and revealed that people consuming drugs are strengthening or inhibiting neurotransmitters in their brains, or changing their synthesis, storage or release. Through this, drug consumers alter emotions, mood, memory, reasoning powers and perceptions of self and others (Levine 1978:344; Nahas 1981).

However, some differences exist between the two situations: ie in the behaviour of brain transmitters versus drugs analogous to natural brain transmitters. Appetite, satiation, sexual depletion and other biological restraints govern mammal capacity to eat drink, and mate. Consequently the latter activities are not constantly reinforced to the extent that drug use is. See below. Additionally, the plant chemicals drug users select are much more resistant to decay than are the mammal neurotransmitters of which the plant chemical are analogues. Consequently plant chemicals remain longer at the site than the genuine neurotransmitters, and often become potent neurotoxic agents (Kosterlitz and Hughes 1978:412).


The results of animal research has received extensive critical scrutiny. It has to do with money. New synthetic drugs are more likely to receive approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration if they have little or no reinforcing capacity. To evaluate this, three research methods are utilized: drug substitution procedures; continuous self administration with naive animals; and use of escape/avoidance behavioral baselines (Thompson and Young 1978:119 129). Tests use a variety of species (e.g. rat, dog, cat, and non human primates); and investigators use different devices (e.g. lever press, panel press), and different routes of drug administration (e.g. intravenous, oral, intragastric, and inhalation) (Kalant et al.1978:466). Research indicates a number of factors exist which can modify individual animal response. However test results for particular drugs are consistent from laboratory to laboratory even with different experimental parameters and test situations.

Neither is the applicability of the findings to human beings in doubt. The Committee on Problems of Drug Dependence of the National Research Council National Academy of Sciences has addressed this matter as have Thompson and Young (1978), and Johanson and Balster (1978). These sources conclude that the model is valid in respect to humans since the results with a particular drug are consistent from laboratory to laboratory. And these results accord with empirical observation: laboratory animals largely self administer the same drugs which are abused by humans, but do not self administer drugs which are not abused by humans. Hallucinogens seem to be an exception; laboratory animals do not self administer these, even though humans do. However, as noted earlier, there are records of wild animals seeking out hallucinogenic plants so the problem here may be one of failure to deliver the drug to the appropriate tissue.

The conclusion therefore, is that drug users everywhere experience changes in the functioning of reward processes in the limbic system of the brain. As a result, in a situation free of effective controls, users in any society with open access to drugs will consume them in an open ended, unscheduled fashion, and without reference to controls which operate with foods, that is, appetite and satiation.

This does not imply that the effects of drugs on reward centres always ‘induce a compulsive drug oriented behaviour’ (Nahas 1981:1). It is the chemical interaction between drugs and neurotransmitters which is similar in both human and non human animals, not the subsequent behaviour.

Human behaviour depends upon values: social, economic, legal and religious. In fact, the late Schuster, one of the seminal figures in research into drug seeking behaviour among animals, clearly appreciated the sociological implications of his work, particularly the increased importance it gives to social controls.

We are depending on a variety of countervailing influences to prevent the organism [Homo sapiens] from engaging in behavior which evolutionary mechanisms have made extremely seductive…. Why is it that members of this symposia audience, most of whom have access to the major drugs of abuse do not use them in an unregulated manner? We know far too little about the social and psychological factors which produce this resistance to the abuse of drugs. It is our position that this is a major area which must be researched if we are to develop effective prevention to unregulated drug use. In conclusion, our major message is that drug taking is biologically normal and society must learn to live with that fact and to develop the necessary constraints to prevent unregulated drug use (Schuster, Renault and Blaine 1979:17) (italics added).


The Committee on Problems of Drug Dependence of the National Research Council National Academy of Sciences
Furst, P. (1972). Flesh of the gods:the ritual use of hallucinogens. London:George Allen & Unwin.

(1979). Hallucinogens and culture.San Francisco: Chandler & Sharp.

Gilman, A.G., L.S. Goodman, T.W. Rall, and F. Murad (eds.) (1985). Goodman and Gilman’s pharmacological basis of therapuetics. 7th ed. New York: Macmillan.

Greenberg, J. (1983). Natural habits in natural habitats. Science News 124: 300-301.
Johanson, C., and R. Balster. (1978). A summary of the results of a drug self-administered study using substitution procedures in rhesus monkeys. Bulletin on Narcotics 30: 627-628.

Kalant, H. et al. (1978). Behavioral aspects of addition: group report. In J. Fleishman (ed.) The bases of addiction: Report of the Dahlem Workshop on the Bases of Addiction. Abakon: Verlagsgesellscgaft.
Kosterlitz, H.W. & J. Hughes. (1978). Endogenous opoid peptides. In J. Fleishman (ed.) The bases of addiction: Report of the Dahlem Workshop on the Bases of Addiction. Abakon: Verlagsgesellscgaft.

Levine, R.R. (1978). Pharmacology: Drug actions and reactions. Boston: Little Brown and Company.

Nahas, G.G. (1981). A pharmacological classification of drugs  of abuse. Bulletin on Narcotics 33: 1-19.

Schuster, C.R., P.F. Renault, and J. Blaine. (1979). An analysis of the relationship of psychopathology to non-medical drug use. In R. Pickens and L. Heston (eds.) Psychiatric factors in drug abuse. New York: Grune & Stratton.

Spotts, J. & F. Shontz. (1980). Cocaine users : a representative approach. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

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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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The above example is a prototype which has many permutations. One variant has in-coming Europeans seizing control of an indigenous drug, which until this point has been restricted to a small elite class of the prehistoric or near-prehistoric community. Europeans then proceed to make the drug secular and available to the whole population. Over centuries, elite consumers have been indoctrinated with traditional drug control mechanisms. But the bulk of the population have not.  Many become drawn to the drug and its new availability, and the Europeans–the drug traders–gain wealth, power and control. 


The Incas, the Conquistadors and the Erythroxylum coca bush form a gruesome example of the above: one which put tribute into the pockets of Catholic prelates; transformed 10 000 Spaniards into coca plantation owners or administrators less than two decades after conquest, and left thousands of indigenous people condemned into slavery. The cruel and lethal Potosi silver mines are said to be to the 16th century what Auschwitz was to the 20th century.

 Erythroxylum coca  grows on the eastern slopes of  the Andes, and it is the plant source of the stimulant, cocaine. Nobody knows how long people have used coca. But consumption must have begun prior to 4000 BP, because by this time, people were trading the drug  between local regions of the Andes (MacNeish 1977). A story lies here too, but one unknown to me  at present.


Europeans knew nothing of coca prior to the Conquistadors’ Invasion in 1532, and probably only the Inca upper classes chewed coca at that time. All classes of Inca, however, were consuming the drug soon after the invasion.

 The  coca trade was a lucrative one, and some settler coca plantations made 80,000 pesos yearly. However, it was not the cash return which was significant  about coca. Just as alcohol was useful in recruiting labor in ancient Europe, and Afrikaners used alcohol to procure labor and wealth from African miners, the Spaniards used control over coca to manipulate  Peruvians into working in silver mines like Potosi. The silver extracted was the principal source of Spain’s wealth in the New World (Hemming 1983:368; Gutierrez Noriega 1951:146). One of the earliest Spanish commentators, Father Blas Valera had this to say about coca in 1609:

 The great usefulness and effect of coca for laborers is shown by the fact that the Indians who eat it are stronger and fitter for their work; they are often so satisfied by it that they can work all day without eating…It has another great value, which is…the income of the bishops, canons and other priest of the Cathedral Church of Cuzco [the Inca capital city] is derived from  the tithe on the coca leaf [10%] , and many Spaniards have grown rich, and still do on the traffic in this herb.


 A similar situation could well have occurred when the British invaded Australia. The new arrivals occasionally observed hundreds, perhaps  thousands, of  Aboriginal people waiting at desert waterholes for supplies of a drug ‘pituri’ to  become available. The first known white to try this still mysterious substance wrote that it effects on him were like two stiff brandies. In fact, pituri was a nicotine-rich psychoactive substance  which Aboriginal people produced from a desert bush  Duboisia Hopwoodii. Like coca, only the elite individuals could use pituri; in this case revered senior men.

Europeans occupying Aboriginal land along pituri trade routes began to seize supplies of pituri to manipulate blacks. Missionaries swapped pituri for tribal weapons and paraphernalia. Kidman ‘the Cattle King’  (and Nicoles’ ancestor)  used it to ‘ginger up his black workers’  (Farwell 1975:50). Many other references exist of other pastoralists using the drug this way and some Europeans used it themselves (Bancroft 1877:10),  at least one western Queensland hotel served whiskey stiffened with pituri as a ‘knockout drop’ (Coghlon: pers comm).

Perhaps the most bizarre use of pituri occurred during the 1890s. There was considerable public pressure by white Australians against the Chinese and the importing of opium (McCoy 1980:73).  The Chinese cook at Glenormiston Station in the Mulligan-Georgina area (that is in the pituri producing region) seized the opportunity and shipped supplies of pituri to Melbourne  as a substitute (Coghlon: pers com). Despite all this interest, pituri did not ‘take off’ as coca did in Peru and  British settlers missed a commercial opportunity.


MacNeish 1977
Hemming 1983
Gutierrez Noriega 1951
Farwell 1975
Bancroft 1877
Coghlon: pers comm
McCoy 1980

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Some references:

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Neilsen       reference missing

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

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

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


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