Archive for the ‘tea’ Category

 I see the danger coming nearer and nearer, that owing to the enormous influence wielded, directly and indirectly, by those who are concerned in upholding the [drug] traffic, we are approaching a condition of things perilously near the corruption of our political system [authors’ emphasis]. 
                                                                           (Rowntree and Sherwell 1900:107)

Anxiety about drug use feels modern: the message above could be yesterday’s. Filed perhaps by authorities from Bogotá, Bangkok, the Mexican/US border, or other nodal areas of drug trading, it claims that demand for psychoactive substances is so voracious as to rend the social and political fabric. In fact, the speaker is an Englishman, former Prime Minister Lord Rosebery. He addresses the British House of Commons about the consequences of high alcohol demand. The year is 1901.

Rosebery’s consternation introduces my topic. Drug use has great antiquity, and not just as a source of pleasure. In the distant past, as now, people used drugs as tools for social bonding, for contact with the Sacred or spiritual for expressing identity, for manipulating others, and as aids in confronting culturally-specific problems. In short, for millennia, drugs occupied a central place in the economic, political, religious and social life of human beings.

The earliest known and dated association between humans and psycho-active substances goes back more than 50,000 years to the Neanderthal burials at Shanidar Cavein northern Iraq.  Here the deliberate enclosure in a grave of a group of non‑food plants, including the mind-altering Ephedra genus, suggests drug use connected with spiritual beliefs (Furst 1976:4).

According to archaeologist/anthropologist Andrew Sherratt  from the University of Oxford, it can no longer be doubted that drug consumption has been ‘fundamental to human life, and is likely to be at least as old as the emergence of Homo sapiens’ that is about 70,000 -50,000 years before the present era (Sherratt 1995).  Supporting evidence for this comes from  linguistic, mythological, and philological research.  It indicates Palaeolithic hunters (i.e. Ice Age Homo sapiens) consumed psycho-active substances, most probably hallucinogens, right across the Northern Hemisphere during this period.

In that harsh world, neither gods nor God figured in peoples’ cosmology. Ice Age hunters were simple animists. They believed that all living things contained spirits—the mega-fauna they stalked or trapped, the lichen, mosses and  small game they sometimes acquired when  ice and snow  permitted. To get in touch with, and influence, this alternate world, prehistoric people consumed hallucinogens. Priestly figures—shamans—interpreted the resulting visions.

The successful shaman was part anchorman, part saviour,  part metamorphosed animal. Prehistoric art displays his set piece: antlered or horned head gear, a shepherd’s crook, a neckpiece strung with paws of the giant cave bear or other hunting insignia. Drawing upon drug-induced hallucinations, the shaman became  ‘master of animals’ with  an ability to visit the spirit world, to summon up game, and to plan and ensure triumphant hunts.

The shaman’s oeuvre included other performance events: staging rituals and ceremonies designed to enhance fecundity among both band members and the animals on which the group depended, and actions designed to maintain the stability of the group. The latter involved mediating social discord and curing illness, again through the interpretation of drug-induced visions. Many successful shamans are thought to have become group leaders.

Most of us today would believe that hallucinogens were ineffectual tools for the social, political and economic tasks to which Palaeolithic peoples applied them. But in evaluating the past, it needs to be remembered that ‘the consolations of imaginary realities are not imaginary consolations’. In that period, life was precarious: food was often scarce, and the need to slaughter individual mega-fauna on any one day could become critical in  avoiding starvation.  On the other hand, attacking a woolly mammoth or a half-ton bison with wooden spears tipped with sharpened stone could just as certainly  threaten the group’s existence. The weapons were too frail to kill large animals at first blow, and the struggle to dispatch a wounded, enraged beast might cause enough death and injury so that the hunting bands might again face extinction, this time from the weakening of the small band.


Gradually the climate warmed. The ice retreated. People continued to drift and settle across much of the world, all the while maintaining their interests in psycho-active substances. Did agriculture develop from the need to regularize drug supplies? Nobody knows. But certainly when our ancestors turned to cultivating plants rather than simply picking them wherever they could be found, mind-altering plants were among the earliest they selected for experimentation.

Cannabis sativa was one of the first four crops involved in the origins of Chinese agriculture in the 8th millennium B.P (Ho 1977). The people of Middle America domesticated tobacco (Nicotiana sp.) as early as maize, their staple food. Coca, (Erythroxylum coca) the plant source of cocaine, appears archaeologically about 5,000 B.P. inCentral Peruin a horticulturalists’ camp. Opium, a member of the native Mediterranean flora, was a cultivated plant in the early Neolithic in Middle Europe, and by the late Neolithic, archaeological remains in Swiss lake villages indicate a fully domesticated  plant, in the sense that, like cereals, opium had lost its self-seeding mechanism. (Sherratt 1995:28 ).

Unlike each of the above psycho-active substances, alcohol was unsuitable for  hunter-gatherers. The latter’s wandering lifestyles meant that all their needs had to be met by items of low bulk and weight. Not surprisingly then, alcohol was not one of the earliest psychoactive substances people consumed. What is thought to be the first archaeological traces of alcohol coincide with the first permanent homes humans built. These were, in turn, associated with the beginnings of horticulture. This was at Catal  Huyuk inAnatolia, around 9 000 BP (i.e. Before the Present ) according to archaeologist  Mellaart (1967).

Drugs as highly-prized items in trading also shone in the murky past. They are not a phenomena of the last few centuries as people are inclined to think, nor the result of technical developments in transport, nor a product of capitalism. Psychoactive substances were frequently, perhaps almost always, present as valued items when long-distance exchanges first linked together communities with different environments, cultures and histories.  In fact some researchers  suggest that demand for psychoactive substances may have been the initiating factor in the development of inter-regional trade, or, similarly, that because of their wide acceptability, drugs became the ‘gold standard’ without which inter-regional trade might neither have developed nor endured.

Trade in wine was undoubtedly a mainstay of the ancient Mediterranean economy in Greek and Roman times according to archaeologist A. Sherratt. A mark of that era as it is of our own was the regional production of especially desirable vintages. And in researching the same dynamic to the north-west of Europe, archaeologist M. Dietler [ 1990:390 ] claims wine was the primary commodity of trade between the Mediterraneanand the Iron Age peoples of western Europe. Dietler also emphasizes the extreme importance of alcohol as a mechanism for recruiting a labour-force throughout much of prehistory from the Neolithic onwards.

Although people first domesticated tobacco in Middle America, by the time Columbus arrived in the New World there were probably no Indian populations from Canadato the tip of South America who did not either grow tobacco or obtain it by trade (Furst  1976 ).  About 4000 B.P. people were trading coca leaves in association with surplus coca production in the Peruregion. Use of the betel nut mixture probably began in Malaysia, but it spread widely throughout South-East Asia about 2000 years ago, possibly in conjunction with the spread of Hindu and Buddhist missionaries.

When Europeans first made contact with West Africa about 1450, a highly developed economy already existed there. It possessed elaborate trading systems, both local and inter-regional.  A caffeine-based stimulant Kola nut (Kola niida) was the economic basis of this wholly African trade. So strong was kola’s appeal, that at times the trade covered a distance of about 3,500km, across the Sahara to the Mediterranean in the north and down to the Volta Riverin the south. The historian J. Goody (1964) argues that the  regional significance of the African state of Dagoma may be due to its control over kola trading.

Today, it is probable that all societies utilize psychoactive-substances to one degree or another. A survey of the Probability Sample File, a group of 60 files from the Human Research  Area Files chosen so as to meet probability sampling requirements (Lagace 1974), suggests that more than 92 per cent of all societies use mind-altering substances. Even in Muslim communities, which publicly renounce drugs, many individuals consume one or the other of the psychoactive stimulants: tea or coffee, or the stronger kola and qat. The United States, which regards so harshly the importation and use of cannabis, opiates, and cocaine, has tolerated amphetamines in professional baseball since 1970. T. J. Quinn, Sports Writer for The Daily News, in November 2005 described amphetamine use in professional sport as ‘so common it is almost quaint’ with club houses commonly having two pots of coffee on stand-by. One carries the label ‘coaches’ coffee;  the second, laced with amphetamines, is ‘players coffee’.


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