Archive for the ‘personal insight’ Category

The Need to Know

Pre-historians and others speculate that people have been consuming mind-altering drugs for thousands of years. In 1995 Andrew Sherratt, at the time Inaugural Professor of Old World Prehistory at Sheffield University stimulated this issue with an authoritative statement. ‘The deliberate seeking of psychoactive experience is likely to be at least as old as anatomically (and behaviorally) modern humans, one of the characteristics of Homo sapiens sapiens’ (Sherratt 1995:33). That is, about 70,000 -50,000 years before the present era.

Sherratt’s ideas are uncommon among anthropologists—my profession. It is true that prehistory, ancient history, archaeology and anthropology are ‘sister’ occupations along the same academic spectrum dealing with human life, but there are different emphases in each. In anthropological theory it is ’Culture’ that is fundamental to human life, certainly not drug consumption. Despite this, I have had a long interest in investigating the near universal practice of altering consciousness. Does it arise from socio-cultural conditioning? Alternatively, could it be an innate drive based on the neuro-physiological structures within the brain?

When I began thinking about these theories, I was already a pharmaceutical chemist in addition to studying anthropology. Both professions deepened my capacity for researching the issue, although from opposing perspectives. The failure of the ‘War on Drugs’ motivated me further.

If two mutually–exclusive causes of a phenomena exist, or appear to, and this conflict remains unresolved, then incoherence and uncertainty results. With the true cause of drug-seeking unknown, plans to control the phenomena will be hit and miss. Or perhaps fail, just as the War on Drugs has. Future directions of phenomena cannot be evaluated nor its costs appraised. Similarly, society should hesitate to condemn the moral fibre of those caught up in the phenomena if the cause of drug seeking is unresolved (Committee on Opportunities in Drug Abuse Research !996).

Examining the prehistoric period is essential to clarifying the issue. If changing consciousness is an innate drive based on neurological brain functions, then this drive must necessarily have been operating soon after, or possibly before, the emergence of anatomically and behaviorally modern man some time prior to 70.000-50000 years before the birth of Christ. If no trace of drug-seeking appears in the prehistoric past, then the chance of socio-cultural conditioning being the trigger for drug seeking becomes much more likely. The latter could have begun at any time, and many times, in humanity’s existence.

Searching the prehistoric world for people choosing to re-orient their attitudes, thoughts, and emotions to the world outside themselves once appeared a dim and formless task. But not today, with 21st century knowledge that anatomically and behaviorally modern man, emerged far earlier than previously believed. There were differences of course between ourselves and newly emerged humanity. They had radically fewer resources: no written languages; probably very little communication with other groups, let alone other races; little exposure to diverse environments. Their short life spans meant less time to accumulate the number of experiences essential in the formation of wisdom and its transmission to future generations.

But prehistoric people were not the primitive, less-than-fully human creatures of cartoons. They had language, made music, could think logically and abstractly. They were no more superstitious than ourselves. We believe in many things most of have never seen: radio waves, the Virgin Birth; the seething mass of molecules which make up the keyboard beneath my fingers. Somebody cleverer and more authoritative than I vouched for these truths. Likewise, prehistoric people also believed in things they did not understand because wise elders held them to be true.


Sherratt, A. 1995. Alcohol and its alternatives: Symbol and substance in pre-industrial cultures. In J. Goodman, P.E. Lovejoy, A. Sherratt (Eds.) Consuming habits: Drugs in history and anthropology. Routledge: London, New York.

Committee on Opportunities in Drug Abuse Research !996 1996. Pathways of Addiction: Opportunities in Drug
Abuse Research. Institute of Medicine. National Academic Pres: Washington

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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.


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