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Ideology and Science

To reiterate the content of my last post, in 1984 I was expecting to field-test some theories about drug/ human interaction. My theories (hypotheses) grew firstly from the records of prehistoric drug use I had collated in the previous years. The advances of neurosciences in the decades of the 1960, 1970s and 1980s also educated and inspired my curiosity; particularly in the question of whether drug seeking is biologically derived or whether individual or societal pathologies drive it.


However, when I began shaping my hypotheses, 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 without formal medical treatment compulsive drug craving, seeking, and consuming take over individual lives and leads to their wreckage. No information seemed to exist either about the growing certainty that genetic factors play a part in the variability in susceptibility of each individual to becoming addicted.


I was not surprised by this omission. Through time and across regions, religions, politics, professional ethics and/or other socio-economic conditions have frequently controlled what individuals can consume, grow, learn, and manipulate with psychoactive substances, even those their society endorses. See for example, in the history of the Australia Aboriginal drug pituri (Duboisia Hopwoodii) the number of existing controls that ensured only respected elders chewed the drug.


To ensure my readers belief in the authenticity and reliability of my hypotheses, I jump ahead here to the period between 1990s -2014. Would this time span contain an explanation as to why no public knowledge or discussion appeared to exist in the early 1980s of drug use as a brain disease? Fortunately the period does oblige, at least partially.


Below, I quote from a journal article by Dr Al. Leshner, a neuroscientist fin the USA. Leshner holds a significant role in drug research, policy and administration. At least two of his papers discuss the question of why ‘drug use is a brain disease’ has been slow to enter the public discourse. Here is Al. Lashner’s profile. It comes from The American Association for the Advancement of Science.


Alan I. Leshner has been Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Executive Publisher of the journal Science since December 2001. Before coming to AAAS, Leshner was Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. He also has served asDeputy Director and Acting Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, held a variety of senior positions at the National Science Foundation, and served as a professor of Psychology at Bucknell University. Leshner received an undergraduate degree in psychology from Franklin and Marshall College, and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in physiological psychology from Rutgers University.

These are extracts from his paper, Addiction is a Brain Disease and it Matters, in Science:

Dramatic advances over the past two decades in both the neurosciences and the behavioral sciences have revolutionized our understanding of drug abuse and addiction. Scientists have identified neural circuits that subsume the actions of every known drug of abuse, and they have specified common pathways that are affected by almost all such drugs. Researchers have also identified and cloned the major receptors for virtually every abusable drug, as well as the natural ligands for most of those receptors.

In addition, they have elaborated many of the biochemical cascades within the cell that follow receptor activation by drugs. Research has also begun to reveal major differences between the brains of addicted and nonaddicted individuals and to indicate some common elements of addiction, regardless of the substance.

That is the good news. The bad news is the dramatic lag between these advances in science and their appreciation by the general public or their application in either practice or public policy settings. There is a wide gap between the scientific facts and public perceptions about drug abuse and addiction. For example, many, perhaps most, people see drug abuse and addiction as social problems, to be handled only with social solutions, particularly through the criminal justice system. On the other hand, science has taught that drug abuse and addiction are as much health problems as they are social problems. The consequence of this gap is a significant delay in gaining control over the drug abuse problem.

Part of the lag and resultant disconnection comes from the normal delay in transferring any scientific knowledge into practice and policy. However, there are other factors unique to the drug abuse arena that compound the problem. One major barrier is the tremendous stigma attached to being a drug user or, worse, an addict. The most beneficent public view of drug addicts is as victims of their societal situation.

However, the more common view is that drug addicts are weak or bad people, unwilling to lead moral lives and to control their behavior and gratifications. To the contrary, addiction is actually a chronic, relapsing illness, characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use. The gulf in implications between the “bad person” view and the “chronic illness sufferer” view is tremendous. As just one example, there are many people who believe that addicted individuals do not even deserve treatment. This stigma, and the underlying moralistic tone, is a significant overlay on all decisions that relate to drug use and drug users.

These difficulties notwithstanding, I believe that we can and must bridge this informational disconnection if we are going to make any real progress in controlling  drug abuse and addiction. It is time to replace ideology with science.


This is a shocking indictment. Blaming drug abuse on pathological social or personal conditions goes back at least to the 1950s over 62 years ago. It was not evidence based then. As a theory it did not help addicts then nor does it help now. It interferes with our legal and justice system, it sabotages our relationships with other countries, and costs immense sums of money.

Thinking solely as an anthropologist at the moment I ask myself what does the AngloSphere gain by maintaining this belief? It creates a group of scapegoats; without the weak and perverse drug users, we could not acknowledge a better class of people. At the same time, it manifests and reiterates the beliefs of revealed religions like Christianity, Islam and Judaism that mankind is full of sin.



Leshner, A.I. (1997). Addiction is a brain disease, Science, 278, pp.45–47.

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An example of how excessive [drug] behavior occurs might be provided by the socioeconomically deprived ghetto youngster who becomes involved with heroin use through peer pressure and finds such use an acceptable means of alleviating negative personal feelings (anxiety, insecurity, hostility, and frustration) allowing him to ‘feel good’ about himself and his environment.  On the other hand, a middle‑class, Irish Catholic, white male may resort to excessive alcohol use as the preferred vehicle for alleviating his hypophoric state and thus capture the same ‘feel good’ aura (Mule 1984:53).

Keup (1982:10) listed thirty‑seven named, separate, socio-cultural factors involved in “the aetiology  of maladaption [with drugs] the vicious circle of  causative factors involving the family, the youth and  industrial society”. He presents profiles of young drug  abusers, classifying them as either conformists, searchers,  experimenters, gluttons, or dionysians.

I have not written earlier about traditional explanations of drug use and drug abuse because the topic lacked relevance in a prehistoric context. Now I do so. You need to understand the old traditional model to understand the contribution  the neurosciences makes to understanding drug use/abuse. Apart from other issues the latter model is central to my question of whether drug use is result of socio-cultural conditioning or whether it is something rooted deep in mammal brain structures.

Examples of  ’the traditional explanation’ of drug misuse or abuse appear in the introductory quotes. As you can see, social causality and psychological dynamics rate as the villains. These explanations go back at least to the 1940s, possibly much earlier. Not only did individuals adopt these perspectives but so did institutions  ostensibly friendly to drug abusers. The Odyssey House movement refers to clients as ‘sociopaths’ who have never learnt either to trust or to cope.  Even  Alcoholics Anonymous, which is founded upon the concept that  alcohol abuse is a disease, also paradoxically argues that  the blame for contracting the disease rests with the  victim, referring to the “serious character flaws which made  problem drinkers of us” in the first place (Alcoholics  Anonymous quoted in Milam and Ketcham 1985:140). Some scientists imply a criticism of this model  claiming  that,  since 1984  virtually all forms of psychopathology have  been given causal roles in the use/abuse of drugs of psychoactive drugs. The implication here, I believe, is that if the one action is attributed multiple causes, then none of the causes may be correct (Schuster, Renault and Blaine 1979).

 This echoed my own feelings that the traditional explanation of drug misuse or abuse was unhelpful.  And like many people I had one or two heavy drug (alcohol)  users in my social group, and I was saddened by the social stigma they attracted. So I began  following the neuroscience research in the early 1980s through my pharmacy background. I found it exciting. It satisfactorily linked drug chemistry to brain chemistry in arguing that the drugs we consume to alter our moods, soothe our anxieties, explore our creativity, revitalize our courage etcetera, all contain neurotransmitter chemicals identical to neurotransmitters in our brains. The addition of  drug plant neurotransmitter to the neurotransmitters natural to our brain, caused the brain to react by changing the synthesis of the ‘home-grown’ neurotransmitters, or by altering their storage or  release. This was the means by which drug consumption allows individuals to alter their emotions, mood, memory, powers and perceptions of self and others.

The brain’s reward system becomes involved also. As a result, every drug-consuming mammal, whether human or non-human, immediately experiences the urge to continue using psychoactive substances.  Even before any adjustment to the physical body occurs, this form of biological addiction affects all mammals who sample psychoactive substances, whether housewives or CEOs, parrots or bears. With  their first taste of a drug, innocent consumers fall victim to an evolutionary ‘tweak’. The addict is innocent.

Nevertheless not every human individual slips into chronic drug seeking as a result of this exposure. Dr C.R.  Schuster, who in1980 headed the lab for psychopharmacology at  the University of Chicago, noted that a range of cultural and environmental factors may and does limit initial drug use. My accounts of prehistoric drug use reveals some of these environmental factors: for example  continuing supply shortages of pituri and exact knowledge of where it grew, certainly limited use. Socio-cultural restraints shaped consumption too. Aboriginal societies were mostly gerontologies at the time. Powerful older men ensured that life’s goodies went only to powerful older men; and only revered older men knew the secrets of curing Duboisia hopwoodii plants to produce ‘real’ pituri.

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Prehistoricdrugs Update

Hi readers, I’m having trouble with my vision so I’ve decided to write shorter blogs , but I am not giving up!

Cheers, Pamela Watson

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Andovasio, J.M. and G.F. Fry 1976 ‘Prehistoric Psychotropic Drug Use in Northeastern Mexico and Trans-PecosTexas’. ‘Economic Botany vol. 30.

 Albers, P  and S. Parker 1971 ‘The Plains Vision Experience: a Study of  Power and Privilege,’ Southwestern Journal of Anthropology vol 2.5

 Benedict, Ruth, 1922 ‘ The Vision in Plains Culture’. American Anthropologist 24:1-23.

 Campbell, T.N. 1958. ‘Origin of the Mescal Bean Cult,’ American Anthropologist.

 Fagan, B.M. 1974. Men of the Earth.

 Furst, P.T. 1976 Hallucinogens and Culture.  San Francisco: Chandler and Sharp Publishers.

 Jones Philip. 2007  Ochre and Rust . Adelaide:Wakefield Press.

 KirklandF and W. Newcomb. 1996 The Rock Art of  Texas Indians. Paintings by F. Kirkland, text by W.W. Newcomb.Austin:University ofTexas Press.

 La Barre, Weston 1970’Old and New Wold Narcotics: a Statistucal Question and a Ethnological Reply’  Economic Botany vol. 24;368

 La Barre, Weston. 1957. ‘Mescalism and Peyotism,’ American Anthropology ,vol 59, pp.708-711.

Lowie, Robert 1954, Indians of the Plains New York: McGraw-Hill.

KirklandF and W. Newcomb. 1996 The Rock Art of  Texas Indians. Paintings by  F. Kirkland, text by W.W. Newcomb.Austin:University ofTexas Press.

 Sahlins, Marshall. 1974 Stone Age Economics. London: Butle rand Tanner

 Schultes, Richard Evans. Harvard review paper on hallucinogens.

 Sherratt, A. ‘’Alcohol and its Alternatives: Symbol and Substance in Pre-Industrialised Societies,’ In eds. J.Goodman, P. Lovejoy and A SherratConsuming Habits: Drugs in History and Anthropology..London andNew York:  Routledge

Turpin, Solveig.1995 ‘TheLowerPecosRiverRegion ofTexasandNorthern Mexico  Bulletin of Texas Archeological Society. 66:541-560.

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Controversy has arisen concerning the spectre of prehistoric ‘drug’ use despite ample evidence of the ritual and medicinal importance of such psychoactive plants in many Indian cultures in theNew World. Politically correct or not, the use of these plants was part and parcel of shamanistic ritual in theLower Pecosas elsewhere in the hunter-gatherer world.                                                                                                                   

www. texasbeyondhistory (UniversityofTexa at Austin)

My pituri research delighted me. I had identified something previously unsuspected (by non Aboriginal people) about Aboriginal culture: the pharmacognostic skills Aboriginal people displayed with the drug pituri, its plant basis, and its effects on human physiology.  Simultaneously, this provided a new dimension for thinking about Aboriginal exploitation of  land and  flora, and the mechanisms of Aboriginal  trade.  In  1983 the Universityof Sydneypublished my pituri research as a monograph entitled This Precious Foliage: A Study of the Aboriginal Psycho-active Drug Pituri. 

Given this, I felt confident that anthropology and pharmacognosy were not  mutually exclusive. I could continue in this field, and, if necessary, deal with academic opposition by mounting a persuasive claim that  the  Department of Anthropology was too narrow in its approach.  So I turned to two other examples of prehistoric drug use. In both cases, white observers singled out for notice among the jumble, the blood and the confusion of colonization, native use of psychoactive drugs.

During researching pituri, I had read Peter Furst’s book  Hallucinogens and Culture (1976). It drew my attention to the people of the Lower Pecos River in Texas.  What particularly  took my interest were the similarities between Pesos people and Australian Aborigines. Both were desert-dwelling  hunter- gatherers with sparse populations; both consumed  a local psychoactive substance;  both drugs were toxic with similar effects on human beings;  for both communities their socially-sanctioned drug use considerably pre-dated European ettlement;  And in both communities, (but for different reasons) European contact terminated consumption of their  favoured drug.  

Because of these parallels, I decided to collate all available information on Pecos drug use and contrast it with Aboriginal consumption with pituri. I though this migh  highlight missing events in one or other of the early colonial records of the two drug-using societies.  What was done in one society and not in the other perhaps ,or conversely, what might—must—have taken place in each society yet went unrecorded by white colonialists.


 Climate changes experienced in the Old World during the last Ice Age account for Ice Age people settling in what is now Texas.  Falling sea levels in the Bering Strait  between Siberia and Alaska created a land bridge between  north-east Asia and north America.  Probably before 15 000 B.P (that is Before the Present)  people from Siberia on the Asia side began spreading,  inch by inch, and mile by mile, across the  newly exposed land. Gradually, these ‘Paleo-Indians’ entered a New World, teeming with birds, animal and plants, with great rivers and soaring mountains, but, so far as is presently  known, devoid of human beings.

The cultural baggage the travellers carried with them was what they and their forebears had known and lived with in the Northern Hemisphere  of the Old World. Three components were significant:  Both peoples practiced hunter-gatherer way of life in which stalking and killing mega fauna supplied most of their food. Secondly, Ice-Age hunters turned to shamansfor their  emotional and spiritual needs.  Finally, sacred narcotic or hallucinogenic plants enabled the shamans to contact or ‘channel’ spirit beings–gods, images and animal spirits. These spirits provided advice and guidance on hunting and other issues. 

In 1970 Professor Richard Evans Schultes, at that time Director of Harvard’s Botanical Museum and the foremost scholar in ethno-pharmacology  got together with Weston La Barre, a leading scholar in the anthropology and psychology of religion. They believed that the newly arrived Ice-Age Siberian migrants in northernAmerica would have soon set about identifying  local psychoactive substances in  the unfamiliar environment.   This must have occurred, they argued, for the incomers to maintain their belief system and way of life: to facilitate shamans in entering  trance states, to see and contact spirits to manipulate the animal world, to advise and influence others, and  cure social and physical ills. (Furst 1976:2)

That is what happened with one small band of Paleo-Indian hunters and food gatherers. They moved into, and onto, what is now known as the Lower Pecos River area in Texas, near that State’s border with northeast Mexico. Probably soon after their arrival, the group identified a local psychoactive substance. This was the poisonous, dark red, seed of the Texas Mountain Laurel bush (Sophora secundiflora),  known as mescal bean  or the Texas Mountain Laurel. (N.B. this is not mescaline)  This plant belongs to the Pea family, and it is native to the  vast  Chihuahuan Desert in North Mexico andTexas.

Because mescal bean has no social or economic importance today,  little on-going research  about the drug occurs. In 1957 (p. 708) the anthropologist  La Barre described mescal bean as ‘a violent and dangerous substance’- a description both graphic and accurate. Chemically, its active ingredient, cytisine, is a ‘cousin’ of nicotine and it effects human physiology in an  extremely similar manner. Toxic effects include:

nausea and vomiting, dilation of the pupils, tachycardia [excessive rapidity and irregularity of the heart-beat] followed by dizziness, mental confusion, muscular incoordination and weakness, and convulsions; respiratory paralysis may occur leading to death by paralysis (Martindales Extra Pharmacopoeia p1746)  

From this technical pharmacological description,  mescal bean  is not a ‘true’ hallucinogen; that is, it does not  invariably  produced hallucinations; however, some observers of mescal bean  consumption dispute this. Nevertheless, one way or another,  mescal bean certainly alters consciousness. The apparent pay-off  for consuming this drug lay not only in  the experience of intoxication, but in the drug’s capacity to produce, or aid in producing, the visions necessary for shamanic rituals and  ceremonies.



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this …precious foliage which is carried always about by them broken into small fragments and tied up in little bags. (von Mueller 1878)

By the early 1900s, most of the above tribes [from the pituri producing areas] had been decimated by privation, disease, alcohol, drought and lead. (Boulia Shire Council 1976)

I struggled greatly in researching the Aboriginal drug pituri. Well before 1890, white pastoral settlement along the margins of the Australia’s great central deserts disrupted the pituri production, distribution and consumption taking place there. The disdain many early settlers felt for the indigenous population, the brutal killing of so many and the internment of others, ensured that pituri soon ceased to exist as an important institution in Aboriginal life. Few, if any, descendants of the original local Aboriginal land owners remain today in the pituri area. And even if I could locate them, I thought it unlikely that they would share with me what they knew.

Pituri Bush

Pituri Bush

Quite apart from the fact that Aboriginal people have little reason to like whites, Aboriginal attitudes to disseminating cultural facts differ from ours. In Aboriginal culture, power comes from control over knowledge (referred to as the Law). Only the worthy can access knowledge, and this only through a succession of painful initiation grades. Taboos and death penalties guard the Law, and punish those who offend against it. Failure to acquire knowledge (mainly by avoiding relevant initiations) constitutes a serious offence. So is acquiring knowledge to which one is not entitled, even if this occurs by accident. Informing others (even other Aboriginal people) of sacred ritual is equally grave.

In practical terms then, I had to settle for what I could find out about pituri from the records of early British settlers. These included explorers’ journals, surveyors’ reports, botanical toxicology evaluations, police documents, private letters and pastoral memoirs. Difficulties existed here too, but in this case they arose from the limitations of white knowledge.

Generally, people recognize only what they already know. Nineteenth century British ignorance of pharmaco-dynamics and phyto-chemistry meant that few observers appreciated what Aboriginal people were actually achieving by using pituri as they did. As a consequence, the above sources, the pastoral memoirs, the police reports etc., often failed to ask the relevant questions about pituri. Consequently, the story of pituri is one of incompleteness and lost opportunity—at least from a white perspective.


When the British arrived in Australia, Aboriginal society was a gerontology, and, like all gerontologies, its revered older men restricted life’s good things to other revered older men. Not surprisingly then, Aboriginal elders appear to have held a prerogative over pituri use. Only after white interference with pituri and its trade began, do references appear naming both Aboriginal women and young men as pituri users as well as elders.

Some whites forcibly seized control of pituri supplies, and used the drug for their own purposes A few pastoralists chewed it themselves in lieu of tobacco, others employed it ‘to ginger up’ their (unpaid) young black workers, missionaries built up artifact collections by offered pituri to warriors in exchange for shields, spears and stone tools; the Chinese cook at a cattle property where pituri grew sent supplies of the raw plant nearly 2 000 km south to his countrymen in Melbourne during a shortage of opium supplies; and at least one rough bush pub in Bedourie mixed pituri with alcohol as a knock-out drink for unwary (white) customers.

To chew pituri, an Aboriginal individual took about one tablespoonful of the cured leaf and stem of the Duboisia hopwoodii plant, obtained by trade or exchange (see below). He ground or chewed this to a finer texture and then he added alkali ash. The alkali ash increased the potency of the drug, enabling the latter to become more easily absorbed and better able to cross the blood/brain barrier. Both ash and pituri received careful mixing on a piece of bark, then the mixture was briefly re-chewed. Now the drug existed as a thick brown-grey paste, capable of transformation into a small roll, slightly longer and thicker than a cigarette. The quid was then ready for consumption.

No early record exists of Aboriginal people describing what chewing pituri ‘meant’ or ‘did’ for them, though many whites left written records of the practice. From the Europeans’ view, blacks achieved two main objectives: the drug energized users thus alleviating physical stress; and in some circumstances it made blacks seem drunk or drugged. Almost from the beginning, settlers thought these effects incompatible with one another. So began the first of many puzzles about the native drug.

Many settler accounts of using pituri to alleviate stress suggest European use of tobacco: :

Used … for occasions when long privations have to be endured (Hodgkinson in Bancroft 1877:9).

The natives chew it to invigorate themselves during their long foot journeys through the desert (Von Mueller in Smyth 1878:222).

Used constantly to deaden fatigue and cravings of hunger (Murray in Bancroft 1879:9).

The native, after using this pituri, is sufficiently courageous to fight (Gilmore in Bancroft 1877:8)

Pituri as a means of radically altering consciousness—appearing drunk or drugged—appear in more than 24 written references. Note below also the placement of the drug behind the ear. This seems to have some significance to users.

It also plays an important part in the social rites of these natives at their ‘Big Talk’ and feasts. The pituri quid for I find no more appropriate word for it is ceremoniously passed from mouth to mouth, each member of the tribe having a chew from the pin’aroo, or head man, downward. This singular wassail cup never fails to promote mirth and good fellowship, or to loosen the tongues of the eloquent … There is a curious mode of greeting on Coopers Creek. When friends meet they salute with ‘gaow gaow’ (peace peace) and forthwith exchange pituri quids which, when well chewed, are returned to their owners’ ears’ (Murray in Bancroft 1879:91).

…it (pituri) is ready for use and it is a comical sight to see half a dozen nude niggers squatting on their hands gravely passing this, no doubt to them delicious morsel from one to another, each chewing it in turn until the effects begin to appear in their staring eyes and a stupid look … I can only compare it to the appearance of an ‘habitual opium consumer’ after indulging in his favourite drug. The effect on some is stupefaction, others again begin their corroboree and the different effects on different Aboriginals are just as apparent as the very different effects alcoholic liquors have on other members of the genus Homo. On completion of the chewing and passing around business. it generally finds its way back to the original preparer who disposes of it by sticking it behind his ear for future consumption (Bedford 1885:111).

This weed has much the same effect as opium on a Chinaman …The man at the camp masticates a quid and after a time passes it to his neighbour who does the same and so it goes round the party (Myles in Curr 1886:36).

Pituri produces a dreamy voluptuous sensation (Roth 1901:31).

The quid or bolus is, on ceremonial occasions said to be passed from native to native. Each one masticating it for a time, and then passing it on, it finding a resting place behind the original proprietor’s ear until again required (Liversidge 1880:124).

They are sitting around the fire and each man takes one cocoon (of pituri) and he will chew that until he goes just about to sleep … into a sort of coma. . . They go off into a daze. Then when he’s finished with that wad (of pituri) he puts that behind the next fellow’s ear … There are about five of them and that continues right along until the five are sound asleep. (Coghlon 1980).

 Sources map

Number  Observer  Area  Source 
1 Bedford  Georgina River  Bedford l887:111 
2 Brown  Mulligan River  Brown in Bancroft 1879:7 
3 Coghlon  Georgina River  Coghlon 1980 
4 Eglington  Burke River  Curr 1886, V2:346 
5 Gilmour  Eyres Creek  Bancroft 1877: 7 
6 Heagney  Thomson-Barcoo Rivers, junction  Curr 1886, V2:374 
7 Hodgkinson  Mulligan River  Hodgkinson in Bancroft 1877:l0 
8 Howitt  East of Lake Eyre  Bancroft 1879:9 
9 King  Innaminka  Moorehead l963:ll8 
10 Murray  East of Lake Eyre  Murray in Bancroft 1879:9 
11 Myles  Thargomindah  Curr 1886, V2:36 
12 Paull  Warburton River  Curr 1886, V2:18 
13 Salmon  Coongy Lake  Curr 1886, V2:24 
14 Wills  Innaminka  Bancroft 1879:9 
15 von Mueller  Cooper’s Creek  Smyth 1878, V1:223 

Only two additional references lie outside the above pattern. One botanist claimed that:

Blacks after chewing the leaves plaster the plug formed by doing so behind their ears as they believe the effect is intensified ( Buckland 1879 :240) Italics added.

No other observers made similar claims. Nevertheless, the number of references to placement behind the ear and their details, do suggest this had a particular significance. (And in hindsight, we can see resemblances here to our very- much-later invention of nicotine patches).

The second unusual account of pituri use comes from Gilmour, a police officer, who made lengthy trips well beyond the pastoral frontier. This placed him in a position to note behaviour as it existed at the initial moment of white/black contact, The action he observed took place some years before it found publication.

The old men before any serious undertaking chew these dried leaves … One old man Mr Gilmour and his party fell in with refused to have anything to say or do until he had chewed the pituri: after which he rose and harangued in grand style, ordering the explorers to leave the place (Gilmour 1872 in Bancroft 1877.)

The implication here is that pituri was a source of wisdom, much like an oracle, with the old man being a shaman whose role was to draw upon and interpret its advice.

This reference is difficult to evaluate. On the one hand, anthropologists believe that hunter/gathering lifestyles ‘program’ their followers to adopt shamanism. The argument goes: hunter/gatherers lead dicey lives. Almost every day brings an on-the-spot trials of judgment and skill. In these circumstances, supernatural guidance would lift hope and offer reassurance. Despite this argument I found one reference only to pituri as a source of shamanistic vision. This does not mean that shamanism did not exist; only that I did not find other evidence of it in early records.


And there’s a problem. Can the one drug enable users both to undertake long marches through the desert, and also deeply alter their state of consciousness? I thought it unlikely and I suspected that this seeming anomaly explains some of the reasons why pituri has failed to generate research interest. I re-read the last analysis of pituri done prior to my research. The 1933/4 paper byT.H. Johnstom and J.B. Cleland claimed that the active ingredients of pituri were nicotine and a new substance with a similar chemical structure. The analyst named it ‘nor-nicotine’—indicating that a missing methyl group distinguished the latter’s chemical structure from that of nicotine itself. Both nor-nicotine and nicotine effect the human body similarly, although doubt exists as to their relative toxicity.

If nicotine and nor-nicotine were the active ingredients, it would, to some extent, be an appropriate finding. Nicotine fits the profile of a stress-relieving drug with its initial capacity to raise blood pressure, increase adrenaline production, suppress hunger contractions, and provide efficient use of body fluids. And nicotine would have a relevant cultural context also. Indigenous Australian peoples have long exploited other nicotine-containing plants At the time of British settlement, 15 or more native Australian species of tobacco existed. As far as white knowledge goes, Aboriginal people utilised at least two or three of these, together with two imported tobaccos, one each from what are now the sovereign countries of Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. So if pituri did contain nicotine, it fitted into an existing nicotine-exploiting cultural complex.


Hodgskinsin, W.O. 1877. Northwest Exploration. Parlimentary paper: Brisbane.

Smyth. 1878. Aborigines of Victoria. 2 vols. Melbourne Government Printer.

Bancroft J. 1877. Pituri: paper read before the Queensland philosophical society. Brisbane Government Printer.

-Pituri and Tobacca: paper read before the Queensland philosophical society. Brisbane Government Printer.

Bedford CT. 1887. Reminiscences of a surviving trip from Boulia to the South Australian border. Preceedings of the Royal Geographical society of Australia. Queensland branch. 2:99

Buckland A.W. 1879. Stimulants in use amongst savages. Journal of the royal anthropolical society of Great Britain and Ireland. 8: 239.

Coghlon N. 1980. Interview by P. Watson, May 20th 1980. Tape in possesion of author.

Curr E.M. 1886-7. The Australian Race. 4 vols. Melbourne Government Printer.

Johnston T.H. & J.B.Cleland. 1933/1934. ‘The history of the Aboriginal narcotic, pituri.’ Oceania 4:201

. Oceania oru eh

Liversidge A. 1880. The alkaloid from Piturie. Preceedings of the royal society of New South Wales. 14:123

Roth W.E. 1901. Food: its search, capture and preparation. North Queensland Ethnographic Bulletin.

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