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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

‘Out of home for sure’, I thought

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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