Archive for the ‘nicotine’ 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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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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At the end of  the 1960s, American anthropologist Victor Turner (1969:82) vastly stimulated social studies by developing a theory for analyzing ritual, symbols and performance. Among other arguments, Turner chose the word  ‘communitas’ to describe a social state in which group members confronted one another directly without the  behavioral determinants of status, roles and hierarchies. Turner argued that this ‘anti-structure’ formed a necessary alteration to the everyday, differentiated, social world. In Turners view, the two behavioral patterns, the structured and differentiated on the one hand, and the state of communitas on the other, represent major models of human interaction, with social groups juxtaposing and alternating between the two.

Victor Turner did not mention psychoactive substances in this connection, however, I have found situations fitting the descriptions of ‘communitas’ which are also associated with drug use: the Christmas office party; the traditional Japanese geisha party; some fund raising events like the sausage sizzles. At the latter, participants wear casual gear, children buzz around the adults and dogs around the barbecue;  role playing is at a minimum; ‘finger’ foods replace standard meals; beer and wine flow, unusual locations provide the setting, and interaction increases between people who are not usual associates.

Did communitas states occur in prehistoric times?  That is the inference from Turner’s argument that the structured and the state of communitas are major human models of interaction. But descriptions of drug use in prehistoric communities do not necessarily include descriptions of the characteristics which define a state of communitas. So it is hard to be certain that states of communitas existed, and if psychoactive substances were integral in their performance.  One episode that does contain sufficient detail is a particular tribal use of tobacco in Papua New Guinea. ‘Managing Sex and Anger; Among the Gebusi of Papua New Guinea’ by Bruce Knauft in Drugs In Western Pacific Societies: Relations of Substance ASAO Monograph No11 Editor Lamont Lindstrom (1987).

As Kauft explains it:

Among the Gebusi of central south New Guinea two different drugs—tobacco and kava—are  used ceremonially to produce strikingly similar  social transformations. In each case, heavy drug consumption at ritual feasts is directly related–in both Gebusi beliefs and in fact—to cessation of hostilities between antagonists and, subsequently, to marked social and sexual camaraderie between them. The functional significance of these transformations is particularly great given an extremely high rate of violence and homicide in Gebusi society. Most violence follows a death from sickness and involves male affines (that is male in-laws). This occurs particularly between those categories of kinsmen who are typically in a prominent drug-sharing relationship at ritual feasts.

Gebusi have been as isolated as their fellow country-men, the  Mundugumor. The population numbered about 450 when this account was written (pre-1987 publication).  They live in longhouse settlements on the Strickland Plain in PNG’s WesternProvince. Each longhouse holds up to 54 men women and children.  ‘Several’ long houses form an integrated ceremonial community. Tobacco, Knauft states, formed the essential element of male social life. However, unlike the Mundugumor, the Gabusi had no regional monopoly over tobacco supplies, as it was widely grown in the region. Consequently Gabusi  people rarely traded in tobacco. Gebusi people are also markedly non-competitive with status rivalry notably absent.

At ceremonial gatherings invitations usually extend to several community settlements, bringing together large numbers of unrelated males. Although the occasion is intended to be festive, it begins with displays of social distance, if not outright hostility, from the visitors. Their faces wear  dour, sullen expressions as they approach their hosts.  They carry weapons: spiked wooden cudgels or long pointed black palm bows. The latter make effective slashing weapons when used overhand. The ritual’s purpose is to overcome and transcend this hostility.

With several longhouses hosting the ritual, many male hosts attend, and a long line of guests must pass before them, much like a reception line at a Western wedding.  Every host has a bamboo pipe about half a meter long ending in a large bowl which is regularly replenished with additional smoke. Each and every visitor must accept a pipeful of smoke from each and every host, with the hosts determining the speed at which the pipes are offered. The room rapidly fills with smoke.  People cough, breathe deeply trying to catch their breath between hosts offering yet more smoking pipes. When their guests are in a temporary stupor  (due,  I suggest) to the depressant phase of nicotine now having replaced the stimulant phase) hosts persuade guests to let go of the weapons, and men address one another by affectionate terms such as ‘friend’ or ‘distant relative’. Genial feasting concludes the ritual.


Another thnographic description of communitas comes from  Kennedy’s (1978:220) account of the beer working‑parties, the ‘tesguinada’ of the Tarahumara people of the  SierraMadreMountains of Mexico.

These people live in steep mountainous terrain which divides family units from one another. Even for husbands and wives communication is difficult. A state of extreme shyness exists between the pair and their work patterns are unhelpful in this regard. One or other of the couple must care for the herds of goats, watch widely separate strands of corn, check wandering cattle, and for the wife care for small  children. The family comes back together at night but sheer exhaustion and lack of light limit contact even then.

Group situations have a different reality from those of every day, particularly the tesguinada.   The latter is not a gathering based on kin or clan. It is a  beer –work party set around a particular task which may be difficult or even boring when done alone. In the tesguinada the norms and conditions of daily existence are temporarily suspended or modified.  The contrast between  the two—everyday life and the tesguinada–is heightened by the great increase in  the frequency of social interaction, by the telescoping of social functions into a short space of time, and by their compression in space.  Under the stimulation of crowding, high frequency interaction  occurs, and in the altered states of consciousness produced by alcohol, actions tend to take on an exaggerated and intense character, memory is often impaired, and many of the daily operating rules are relaxed or reversed. Drinking to the point of unconsciousness is not uncommon.

Tarahumara etiquette of ‘tesguinada’ drinking requires that all adults present drink as much beer as possible. Rarely is a person allowed to refuse the obligation to drink. However this is not a heavy drinking society. Natural and cultural conditions limit beer consumpiont. Beer is made from the staple food, corn.  Consequently sufficient  supplies to allow for brewing often do not exist and brewed beer only keeps for a few days. And since the steep terrain makes attendance at tesguinada difficult, holding a tesguinada needs considerable organization.

To Kennedy, the ethnographer, the tesguinada serves all the functions of social life outside those served by the household. The tesguinada is the religious group, the economic group, the entertainment group, the place where disputes are settled, marriages are arranged and deals completed. Opportunities exists for role playing, and the tesguinada is probably the only situation for the release of aggressive impulses. Kennedy concludes ‘Society’ itself is in effect created in association with communal alteration of perception  (1978: 220)’


The idea that consumables may play roles in the articulation and manipulation of social relations and processes lies behind European archaeological interests in Iron Age ‘feasting’.  This includes consumption of alcohol or other psychoactive substances according to the archaeologist M. Dietler (1990) .  Llnmaes near Glenmorgan in Wales is an important site is. It is a vast midden with rich deposits of pig bone (a feasting meat)  human remains, and numbers of imported axes,  bronze and iron cauldrons.  Lying only three miles from the Welsh coast implies ancient trade and exchange, and the site may become of international importance.

I have not read this material myself yet.  However it does not seem to fit the category of  ‘communitas’. True, both feasting and communitas are about events or rituals which change social relationships and social processes. With feasting however, reports suggest the social changes envisioned are  permanent:  creations of  power, status and hierarchies rather than modes of functioning  which alternate between the unstructured and the very differentiated.



Dietler, M. 1990.‘ Driven by Drink, The Role of Drugs in the Political Economy in the Case of Early Iron Age France. ’  Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 91 pp352-406.

Kauft, Bruce 1987.  Managing Sex and Anger: Tobacco and Kava Use Among the Gebusi  of PNG  in Drugs In Western Pacific Societies: Relations of Substance ASAO Monograph No11 Editor Lamont Lindstrom (1987).

Kennedy. John. 1978.  The Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre: Beer, Ecology, and Social Organization.  University of California, Los Angles 

Turner, Victor, 1969. The Ritual Process. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.


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Margaret Mead and Tobacco Producers has relevance today. First is the question of what part, if any, does time play in a society’s ability to control and integrate drug production and consumption? Integration should be at a level sufficient for the society to continue its life and  vital activities without becoming hostage to drug demand. An opportunity to discuss this point arises because I have two series of posts on nicotine-containing plants: nicotine-in-tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) among the Mundugumor and nicotine-in-pituri (Duboisia hopwoodii) among Australian Aborigines.

In Mead’s account of the Mundugumor, its people have allowed tobacco to become central to the universal tasks the Mundugumor, like all societies,  must accomplish to stay viable. The only route to leadership for the Mundugumor  is by extensive tobacco cultivation. This presents problems in labour and time. The Mundugumor solve the former by capturing foreign (non-Mundugumor) women to work the tobacco fields; the later solution also involves foreign labour: manufactured items like fishing nets, mats, and baskets once woven by the Mundugumor themselves are now outsourced to the grass villages. The time saved allows Mundugumor leaders’ wives more time in the tobacco fields, and men more opportunity to create theatrical spectacles. In turn the latter brings prestige to the leader which brings him more followers, more success in warfare, more wives etc. etc.

Similarly Mundugumor people have allowed tobacco wealth to trigger the timing of initiation rites. Once these were once-in-a-life time events; the whole community participating as young adolescents adopted the role and responsibilities of manhood. Now Mead claims initiations are ‘faddish’,  held  when one or other of the grass villages offers a spectacular cult figure to a Mundugumor leader. The latter then stages initiations into the new rites from which many individuals can be excluded.

Rage jealously and violence  fill Mead’s account of the Mundugumor.  You can understand why. I was left wondering how long it would be before the Mundugumor group imploded. (Note the question of drug legality or illegality as a cause of dysfunction does not arise here.)

My posts about nicotine-in-pituri (Duboisia hopwoodii) among Australian Aborigines run from 3/9/2011 to 13/11/2011. In the hundreds of references to pituri production, exchange/trade, and use which I consulted, there is no suggestion of anger or any of the ill-will that bedevils tobacco production exchange and consumption among the Mundugumor.  It is true that material on pituri suggested Aboriginal people had developed methods of exchanging pituri that differed from customary exchanges among hunter/gatherers; and similarly the scale of pituri involved in distribution also suggested some sort of planned plant manipulation not usually part of this life-style. But these changes do not appear as a source of angst.

Many  differences existed between the two situations of course: pituri was a perennial; tobacco an annual. Mundugumor were horticulturalists, Aboriginal people hunter/gatherers.  The Aboriginal people appear to have had far greater knowledge of the effects of nicotine on human physiology than did the Mundugumor; the former exploited nicotine’s bi-phasic  and trans-dermal qualities but the Mundugumor did not. But I think the salient difference may have been time. Use of nicotine-in-pituri has existed for about 5 millennia (Yen  1993). The Mundugumor experience of nicotine-in-tobacco may be no more than two generations old. That is a  coloe difference, time enough to bring drug demand under control  if the society so desired. .

This argument that the Mudugumor only had tobacco crops for a short while, is a bit circuitous. Mead herself observed  the Mundugumor lacked skill at managing their canoes, and their wives continuously worried about children drowning. This led Mead to believe the Mundugumor had only been resident in their  present river-side site for one or two generations . Villagers confirmed this,  saying they had moved from their  ‘arse ples’ to better their lives.  Taking a generation span as  15 –25 years, the Mundugumor may have arrived at the site which Mead found them some time between 1880s-1900s. So was the tobacco plant already on site, just waiting to be loved?

Possibly. However tobacco was not native toNew Guinea. After its enthusiastic ‘discovery’ by Christopher Columbus in 1492  the plant spread rapidly outwards from South America.  Because tobacco is addictive, sailors and travellers carried tobacco seeds with them. At every port of call they distributed seeds freely, ensuring they themselves were always able to replenish supplies. South American tobacco reached New Guineain the 1500s, along with Europe and almost everywhere else ships could drop anchor. But the plant did not  really get established as a crop inNew Guinea because of the hostile terrain and climate.

I think a likely scenario is that tobacco and the incoming, soon-to-be,  Mundugumor population arrived  together on the Yuat River,  At that time, the later half of the 1800s ,New Guinea  was wide open to outsiders.  Europeans arrived to administer, missionaries came searching for souls; adventurers looking for adventure; groups slogged through the terrain prospecting for gold and minerals, plantation enthusiasts searched for potential commercial crops.  In the time frame in question, 1880-1900,  Germans  and British/Australian  groups were both on  Yuat River and grass villages, presumably with indigenous porters, guides etc. I think one or other of these expeditions brought tobacco seeds with them, sowing them  together with copra (coconuts) where ever they visited. Only on the one patch of  high well drained soil in the region, the Mundugumor site, did tobacco grasp hold and flourish.  For some reason, the Europeans left the isolated and malaria-riven site. Their indigenous companions may have remained on what must have seemed to them a godsend: empty, fertile, well-drained land in an otherwise inauspicious region.

The newly arrived Mundugumor were drug naïve. They had no reason to think of tobacco as any different from taro, yams and sugarcane they already possessed: just another plant they could grow, eat and exchange/trade with one another and with the grass villages. In fact tobacco was addictive and initial use promoted further use. Demand must have increased exponentially in the 30 to 50 years which passed in Mundugumor before Mead arrived.  The decisive question is, could tobacco use have become so entrenched and the society so socially and economically disrupted, in only 30 to 50 years?

I can only speculate here.  Since tobacco took only about 50 years to spread from outwards from South America round much of the globe, it seems possible for tobacco to have the impact it did in Mead’ s   Mundugumor over the 30-50 years before Mead arrived.


My analysis of the role of tobacco in Mead’s account of the Mundugumor is the second issue which I believe resonates today. Mead was a pioneer in human rights and feminism. She always argued that patterns of racism, sexism, warfare, and environmental exploitation were learned behaviour and could be changed by discussion. Her capacity to educate the American public in these areas was exceptional. Therefore her description of the Mundugumor in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies came as a shock.  Why was she so harsh and judgemental? She was even more outspoken with friends, referring to the Mundugumor as disorganized and dysfunctional, with an  increase in complexity of life that made their society unworkable (Young 1993).

A few individuals commented that Mead had lost her fine ethnographers’ eye;  others mentioned the stress marriage breakdowns cause when both partners are doing field work together. But I do not think the fault lay with Mead. I think this is another example of society’s values  determining knowledge,  a theme in my blog.

Mead was possibly as naïve about drugs as the Mundugmor.  It was 1932 when she did her research: drug consciousness among English-speaking and European peoples did not really begin until 30 years later with the adoption of a large range of psychoactive substances among US students.  Tobacco itself was not considered addictive until the later decades of the 20th century.  I think Mead’s descriptions of the anger and breakdown of Mudugumor life were probably correct.  Her error lay in believing the three societies was comparable. Actually there were only two comparable societies, both  producing vegetables, carbohydrates and fruit; and one society focusing on producing and

consuming a highly addictive drug.   Mainly because of the time period, Mead lacked the background to recognize an ‘Acapulco on the Sepik’.



McDowell, Nancy 1991   The Mundugumor: From the Field Notes of Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune. Smithsonian Institute Press.

 Mead, Margaret. 1963  [1935]   Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.  New York; William Morrow.


 Michael Young 1993   A Review:  The Mundugumor: From the Field Notes of Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune. Pacific Studie, Vol16 No.4

in Pacific Studies Vol 16 No 4

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The Sepik River basinbecame the general area within which Mead  selected three societies to investigate links between sex and temperament. While each society would be unique in terms of culture, they would be similar in life styles: ‘primitive’ tribal people living in permanent homes and cultivating small mixed gardens.  Stone and wood technology would shape their material lives.

Mead arrived in the Sepik River Basinsociety of the Mundugumor  people in late 1932 with her colleague and husband Reo Fortune. Three years before the couple’s arrival, the Australian  Administration outlawed war, headhunting and cannibalism.  Mead noted (1963[1935]:167),’ Mundugumor life stopped dead, like a watch of which the mainspring is broken’. Mead decided her account would be ‘the life as it had been lived up to three years before we came to the people’ (Mead 1963:167).   Accordingly, her material is not the result of direct  observation as is customary with anthropologists, but a reconstruction of what went before and passed through several heads and mouths before her own.

Mead found about a thousand Mundugumor people living in four villages on opposite sides of the swift  flowing Yuat River. The villages had a monopoly of land which was both high and fertile This was exceptional: all the land for many miles around  was a vast grass land swamp. The Mundugumor lived in huts made from sago palms. Each family had near-by a garden of fruit and vegetables and at least three tree crops: coconuts, betel nut and sago palms. Some of the families also had tobacco plots. The river provided plentiful fish. The rain forest near-by offered (for free) varieties of game, wild foods and spices; ochres and feathers for rituals; timber for musical instruments, for house and canoe building, and for fashioning spears and shields for head hunting and cannibalism.

All the material culture items Mundugumor people needed in their daily lives they got  by trading their tobacco to the miserable half-starved ‘grass’ villages who surrounded them: items of fishing technology like nets, lines and canoe paddles; baskets of all sizes, cooking pots; sleeping baskets, floor mats etc. Once the Mundugumor had made their own implements. Now they preferred to outsource their needs. They claimed this gave their  men more time for theatrical spectacles and head hunting, and the women longer periods of toil in their husband’s tobacco gardens (Mead 1963:171).  And see figure below) Nevertheless the Mundugumor appreciated the possible conflict of interests that could arise. They were careful, they told Mead, not to eat those villagers who supplied essential items like mosquito nets.

Mundugumor power and plenitude did not produce a peaceful, united society. Instead it was a competitive one. Mundugumor men and women alike were violent and aggressive: ‘actively masculine, virile and without any of the softening and mellowing characteristics we are accustomed to believe are inalienably womanly’ (Mead:1963:236) Sons were alienated from fathers,  brother stood against brother and step brother, neighbours distrusted one another .

Mead explains this by an absence of factors among the Mundugumor that might have softened the brutality. The Men’s House, found everywhere else in PNG, no longer existed.  Male initiations had lost their traditional meaning. They were no longer an enriching event with their community witnessing young males being admitted to manhood. Instead initiation had become a faddish event.  Occasionally some leader would decide to ‘import’ a foreign religious figure, and this required every male to be initiated into the new cult (Mead 1963:175) See figure. This split the villagers.  Not every man chose to under go an additional initiation, and not every man was given the opportunity.

Then their was the issue of descent. Normally everywhere, this occurs through the father, the mother, or both parents. What Mead describes in action among the Mundugumor in 1932 is unique: daughters belong to their father’s line of descent and sons to their mother’s. Consequently in a large polygamous family of husband, four  wives and their children, five lines of descent would exist. within the same household. In Mead’s time about two or three of every 100 men achieved polygamous marriages.  Achieving this ideal caused intense arguments within marriages.

Tobacco lay at the center of these disputes. Mead claimed that a mans only chance of power and prestige lay in having extensive tobacco fields and enough wives to work them. (Mead 1963: 191)But obtaining a wife among the Mundugumor required brother sister exchanges. So any man wanting a wife, or another wife, needed a sister to marry the brother of his future wife. Consequently men struggled to control the disposition of their sisters, while fathers  attempted to manipulate their daughters; each male in the polygamous family aiming for greater tobacco production, more wealth and prestige and swelling  numbers of followers, etcetera.


Figure 1.The flow of tobacco through Mundugumor society in 1932 as described by Margaret Mead in her book Sex and Temperament in a Primitive Society.

To recapitulate,  Mead’s research interest in New Guinea reflected an anthropological theme  prominent in her early work( 1924-1935). Was culture more  influential in human behaviour than  biology?   Did  males and females have the characteristic temperament recognized in  United States culture  as ‘typically’ male and ‘typically’ female because biology determined these traits? Mead believed not. In her mind, a society’s values, its world view, its history, its environment etc, would determine whether bold and assertive behaviour attached to males; or to females; or to neither; or both.   Mead chose to research this question in three separate ‘primitive’ and tribal horticultural groups in the Sepik River Basin of Papua New Guinea.  In  the Mundugumor Mead found a violent aggressive people:  men and women alike being masculine and without softness or tenderness. From Mead’s  point of view,  Mundugumor society had standardized the temperments of  both men and women in the same mold. This was a plus for Mead’ s hypotheses.

I believe Mead was recording something different, a process rarely described:  the collapse of a society whose values and social structures are being eroded away–almost by chance–because  their community happens to possess a regional monopoly of tobacco in a region which craves it.

My next post examines the relevance of Mundugumor tobacco use for contemporary questions about drugs.

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