Archive for the ‘tropane alkaloids’ Category

To re-capitulate, in my post of 15 March 2012  I discussed the fact that the number of psychoactive plants in use in the New World when the Spanish invasion occurred was far greater than the number of psychoactive plants in the Old World; that  is 80-100 in the New World versus 8-10 in the Old World.

Changing economic, social and religious conditions account for this difference, not lack of psychoactive plants in the Old World, according to  Weston La Barre (1979). Visionary shamanism complemented the hunting and gathering life-styles in both Old and New World societies. As long as this life style dominated, wide knowledge and use of drug plants existed. But when societies in Europe and Eurasia turned to farming  in the Neolithic period (the New Stone Age), people of that time found visionary shamanism less valuable or appropriate, and knowledge of psychoactive plants slowly declined. The intolerant fanaticism of Old World religions, particularly Christianity and Islam, added further impetus to the trend. These patriarchal, monotheistic belief systems transformed areas where their values took hold and almost, but not quite eliminated the more ancient visionary shamanism.

In Europe, after the arrival of Christianity, dark and heinous reputations soon shrouded visionary shamanism: another case  of the victor writing the history. Nevertheless, vestiges of shamanistic practices remained, and  emerged as ‘Witchcraft’  in the late Medieval and Renaissance period.

Behind some segments of witchcraft  lay the tropane alkaloids.  These chemicals are found world wide in members of the Solanaceae  plant family  Largely unknown to lay people today,  tropane allkaloids have probably taken out more significant individuals than the Mafia.  They carry esoteric folk names; henbane, deadly nightshade, devils apple, belladonna, mandrake and hemlock.

Tropane alkaloids alter consciousness; but, spook-like, far more. Users get retrograde amnesia. They lose all memory of using the drug and what  happened immediately before that. Tropane alkaloids are also transdermal : you absorb them through your skin. And they are hallucinogenic, but like many hallucinogens, the visions experienced tend to be hallucinogen-specific:  Soul flight, mind –body separation and sensations of flying are typical of tropnane  hallucinogens.

These effects are hallmarks of European witchcraft,’ Would-be-witches mixed the chopped leaves of tropane-bearing plants like henbane, belladonna, mandrake etc into animal fats, making the so- called ‘flying ointment’. Women smeared the greenish paste over their bodies, including the genitals, with a small stick. Loss of consciousness followed almost immediately. Hallucinations flooded their minds together with sensations of flying through space, the original  application stick now their  broomstick.  Users eventually regained consciousness with vivid images of the Sabbat they imagined attending. No memory of their immediate ‘sober’ past remained.

When real Sabbats took place, as opposed to drug-induced fantasies of Sabbats, it was at night, often in the open air at lonely spots. A Grand Master presided; the spirit dwelled in him, and it was worshipped by the participants. Spiritual and social  matters were the agenda  In short, witchcraft ceremonies were examples of classic visionary shamanism that held sway before Christianity attempted to stamp it out.

Although witches and broomsticks may sound slightly humorous today, witchcraft was an important religious, economic and political issue in its time. It is though that the search for scapegoats for political and economic disasters lay beneath the persecution of witches.  Protestant and CatholicChurches alike persecuted them, torturing and killing thousands of people during a 200 year period. Victims were mainly women; in Germany entire populations of them were eradicated in some areas.  Families suffered as did the economy of country villages right across the middle and north portions of Europe ( Harner 1979a:130).



Harner, M 1973a  The role of Hallucinogenic Plants in European Witchcraft’. In  M.. Harner (ed.). Hallucinogens and Shamanism.  Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press. ss

Holinshed, Raphael, 1577. Holinshed’s Chronicles.

La Barre, Weston. 1970a  ‘Old and New World Narcotics:  A Statistical Question and an Ethnological Reply.’  Economic Botany VOL. 24

Sherratt, Andrew. 1995 Consuming Habits: Drugs in History and Anthropology.

Wesson, R. Gordon,  1980  The Wonderous Mushroom,  MacGraw-Hill .

Read Full Post »

However, many individuals at the time of analyses and since, were unhappy with the finding of nicotine as the active force in the drug. Among other anomalies (such as the tip-toeing mice in Post Five), nicotine did not match with the second effect of pituri on users: that pituri made them drunk, or, to use a more inclusive term, it altered the users’ state of consciousness. This troubled two scientists, Johnston and Cleland In 1933/4 they jointly authored a review on the literature which detailed pituri consumption up to that date. In this, Johnson and Cleland suggested that nicotine and nor- nicotine might not constitute pituri’s active ingredient at all. Instead, they opted for one or more of the tropane family of alkaloids: hyoscine, scopolamine, hyoscyamus, nor-hyoscyamus, anabasine and atropine.

The Beat ‘generation’ of writers, including the Beat Poets and Carlos Castaneda, made plants containing these chemicals famous: deadly night-shade, henbane, the devil’s apple, Jimson weed, mandrake, belladonna, datura. Their names resonate with ideas not only of altered consciousness (which would dovetail with the second effect of pituri) but with witchcraft, divination, hallucinations, shamanism, body/mind separation and soul flight. And at one time or another, social groups almost everywhere—Asia; Europe; Africa; and North, Middle and South America—sought to create these changes in themselves or to access these states, by utilizing tropane-containing plants.

So Johnson and Cleland’s idea was not an off -the- wall proposition. In fact, tropane alkaloids do exist in the roots of D. .hopwoodii plants, but not in the leaves and young shoots which compose the drug pituri. In fact if tropane alkaloids had been present in the drug itself it would have been impossible to use in the Central Australian deserts as described. The effects tropane alkaloids have on the human eye would not permit it.

Atropine, a representative member of the tropane group, is the chemical ophthalmologists and eye surgeons use to enlarge the iris (the lens part of the the eye) for diagnostic purposes. With atropine use, blinding light assaults the naked retina. Even a wet and soggy Melbourne day would have too much light for an ‘atropined’ eye, let alone a long distance march under the merciless desert sun. So for the time being at least I rejected tropane alkaloids as the active ingredient in pituri,.


All this while I pursued other avenues of enquiry about pituri’s mysterious ingredient. Luckily, the Queensland Museum had a pristine, unopened package of pituri, still woven about with natural fibers and human hair. It was old. The museum acquired it in 1901, making the age of its plant material even older again. Dr W. Griffin, a colleague of mine and an expert in pharmacognosy, agreed to analyze this . Next, I turned to the plant from which Aboriginal people produced their drug:that is  Duboisia hopwoodii. Could this be the source of the anomaly, or the means of pinpointing it, I wondered? I reasoned that D.hopwood1i,being a native Australian plant possibilypoisoned ‘Western’ grazing animals, i.e sheep and cattle. So I leafed through plant toxicology records.

After finalizing these tasks, I had little doubt that the prepared pituri did contained nicotine and nor-nicotine, and not tropane alkaloids. Dr W. Griffith’s analysis had revealed only the normal break-down product of nicotine and nor-nicotine. Similarly, Government plant toxicity records  indicated that the D.howoodii plants from which Aboriginal people prepared pituri contained nicotine and nor-nicotine in the plant leaves and stems: no tropanes (and see below).

Resolving the nicotine versus tropane alkaloid controversy pleased me greatly, Nevertheless, there remained those awkward statements: ‘glazed eyes’; ‘the stupid expression of the opium user’, ‘a sort of coma’, ‘comatose’ ‘a dreamy voluptuous sensation’ etc. These did not sound like nicotine effects to me. . Then, the inappropriateness behind my thinking kicked in. I should not be cogitating in terms of how Westerners used nicotine. I should examine nicotine use in its birth-place—the Americas. I resorted, in short, to the use of ethnographic analogy as I discussed in my First Post.

This was the clincher. The indigenous peoples of the Americas deployed nicotine (in the form of tobacco) in some strikingly similar ways to Aboriginal Australians consuming pituri. ‘The natives used tobacco to relieve physical stress and to intoxicate themselves’, wrote a Spanish priest soon after first contact between European and Indigene. Fortunately, early European researchers took care to record how the indigenous inhabitants interpreted their own behaviour in using tobacco. They believed it facilitated achieving an ecstatic or mystical state. In this condition users communicated with gods. and supplicated them for cures, advice and direction.

Native Americans employed tobacco in many forms—often (perhaps always) mixed with alkali ash, as native Australian people had done. They drank tobacco solutions; they licked  tobacco , they sucked tobacco (both of which seems a better description of what happens when either tobacco or pituri are reported to be chewed) they applied tobacco in pastes to the skin through which it readily passed: Again  just as Australian Aboriginal people were doing in pasting the pituri quid behind their ears). Native Americans  snuffed tobacco up their nostrils; they applied to their eyes; they injected tobacco rectally via enemas. Of these many routes of administration, scholars think the earliest may have been tobacco mixed with alkali ash, then chewed or sucked as Aboriginal people did in Australia. This produces a gradual intoxication.

Read Full Post »

Australian Aboriginal life contained a striking example of prehistoric drug use. At the time the British settled in Australia in 1788 ,  the indigenous people were using a leafy psychoactive plant substance called ‘pituri’. Whites first learnt of this  from the diary of a starving explorer, Wills,who perished in the great central deserts of Australia in 1862.  ‘Pituri was’, wrote Wills who had had some medical training at Guys Hospital in London ‘like two stiff nobblers of brandy’.

Duboisia Hopwoodii

Duboisia Hopwoodii

This aroused great interest in England and Europe. For several centuries ‘folk medicines’ found in overseas European colonies had formed the basis for developing new medical treatments. For example ‘Jesuit Fever Bark’ collected in South America provided Western knowledge with quinine, the first anti-malarial drug. And cocaine from the same continent  had become what the British Medical Journal of January 1886 (Streatfeild 2001) called ‘the fairest flower in medicine’s therapeutic  bouquet’.  So by 1872, prominent analytical chemists in Paris, London and Edinburgh began trying to identify the main ingredients of pituri.

At first, researchers could not obtain sufficient of the  plant material to precede.

 Aboriginal people were willing to share pituri with the occasional white traveler as they had with Wills, but not the location of the plant or other information. Not until 1935 was the stimulant nicotine named as the principle ingredient in the leaves and shoots that composed pituri. Even so, there were anomalies. Pituri produced bizarre behavior in the laboratories. ‘Mice were seen to walk on their toes’, one lab reported  in dismay, while the apparently stupefying effects the drug had on indigenous Australian users seemed a poor fit with nicotine’s energizing properties.

To me, this was an intriguing and unfinished story: a perfect topic for the Honors thesis in Anthropology which I wanted to begin.  I had, at that time, all the prejudices of the average Westerner to ‘technologically backward’  societies.  Without really thinking it through, I had assumed that moral subtleties, intellectual striving, exploitation of phyto-chemistry and other attributes of civilization  more or less took off with the invention of the steam engine. Certainly,  I considered extensive drug trading networks a  modern phenomena made possible by technological advances in transport. Yet here was a group of people, ostensibly with a Stone Age technology, curing and packaging a powerful psychoactive substance. Then, somehow, they distribute the drug by foot over 500 000 sq km of  a desert as hot and dry as the oven’s breath!



The romance of it enthralled me. Moreover, no academic research had been undertaken since 1938, and this early material was of dubious value. ‘Splendid,’ I thought. I would be able to take advantage of my pharmacy background to produce work which would be a useful addition to knowledge of Aboriginal culture, an important goal in Australian anthropological studies.

I  did some basic research on the topic and wrote a proposal for the Anthropology and Sociology Department of the University of Queensland in which I was a part-time student.  I was surprised when my application was rejected, but astounded at the reason.

Professor X,  Department Head  told me: ‘Our [i.e. anthropological] research has taught us that objects, including drugs, have no intrinsic qualities or properties; they have only those which with a particular culture endows them. So if individuals stagger, slur their words after several drinks, if their health suffers, it is certainly not due to alcohol. It  occurs because our cultural belief system teaches people that this is the way to ‘comport’ themselves after drinking alcohol. Your professional work, Pamela, must reflect this perspective. If you wish to  research pituri, examine it instead from a linguistics framework Trace the spread of the word ‘pituri’ from its origin with one linguistic group in the 1800s to its more universal use today among Aboriginal communities’.

My situation felt like ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’. I had stepped from my father’s world of medicine and mine of pharmacy—worlds  in which biology was almost everything—into an alternate sphere in which biology was nothing, even in examining the physical effects of  drug use.


Until this moment I had been ignorant of the historical interaction between anthropology and biology in the United States, and the hostility this still engenders among anthropologists, particularly those either American or American-trained The debate followed the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859. Darwin’s research established that all living things are subject to natural selection, a process in which ‘fitter’’ members of a species survive and breed, and the ‘unfit’ fail, leaving no progeny.

However some biologists and others applied his doctrine of natural selection not only to the physical world as Darwin postulated, but also to the social—never Darwin’ intention. Many came to believe that phenomena like character, history, religion, race, and morality were hereditary, and therefore subject to manipulation by selective breeding. This interpretation became known as ‘Social Darwinism’ or ‘biological determinism’ And while Social Darwinism justified the position of those members of the educated and powerful upper classes, the same argument of course simultaneously denied the abilities and likelihood of advancement and change for other, less fortunate, classes: all women, Blacks, Asians, Jews, poor-whites etc.

Some experimental biologists like T.H. Huxley recognized culture as a socially inherited system of information and accepted its relevance in shaping human lives. Nevertheless, the primacy of hereditary biological factors as the principal forces in the make-up of humanity dominated many decades of vociferous debate in Europe, Great Britain and the United States. Eventually, this culminated in the anti-Semitism and associated biases of Nazi German.

The American anthropologist, Franz Boas,  together with the English evolutionist, Thomas Huxley, and  others successfully challenged this idea as it pertained to the social sciences.  But the first quarter of the 20th  century saw a bitter struggle between those who asserted that biology (or Nature) explained human behaviour and those  who advocated culture (or Nurture) as a determinant.  Eventually the debate’s fury lessened although echoes of it occasionally clang upon the ear.

A  legacy of this is a body of anthropological work with a strong cultural determinist perspective, together with an  abiding suspicion towards the disciplines of  science. Once aware of this history,  the problems faced by anthropologists/archaeologists who observe psychoactive substances in field-work become clear.  Knowing that many of their academic  colleagues accept that  ‘objects including drugs, have no intrinsic qualities or properties, only those with which a particular culture endowers them’ then what can the anthropologist/ archaeologists assert when they locate half-chewed mescal bean at a prehistoric site, or find evidence of ancient brewing vats?  How can they claim these discoveries  as evidence of  drug/alcohol use when nothing exists to verify that the long-dead consumers ‘endowed’ psychoactive qualities on the bean and the beer?  And if drugs don’t exist as a category in the thinking of many anthropologists/archaeologists, then it is impossible for these professions to synthesize  cross cultural information of drug use among social groups


For myself,  I had no intention of doing any research into Australian Aboriginal consumption of pituri without considering its chemical characteristics and the effects users choose to bring about on their own physiology. Unlike most students, I had a profession, an income.  I could afford to shrug off the Anthropology Department. I cancelled  my  enrollment,  and set out to extensively research psychoactive drugs using my pharmacy background.


Darwin, Charles

Emboden, W. 1979. Narcotic plants, halluginagin, stimulants, imebriants, and hypnotics, their origins and uses. London: Cassel Ltd.


Freeman, D

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

Nowlis, H. 1975. Drugs demystified. Paris: Unesco Press.

MacAndrew, C. and R. Edgerton 1969. Drunken Comportant. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.

Murphy, R. 1980. The dialectic of Social life. New York: Columbia University Press.


Read Full Post »