The Need to Know

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

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

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



The theme in most of my previous posts have been the social, economic, religious, and/or political changes which arise in prehistoric communities when they begin producing and/or trading drugs. The  changes experienced are never identical, always  reflecting  the existing cultural and economic life of each drug-hosting community. For example, in polygamous tribal societies, control over drugs may provide advantages in marriage arrangements, resulting in a larger domestic labor force  and increased production. Where visionary shamanism is integral to food procurement; and drugs are integral to visionary shamanism;  drugs are again playing a significant economic role although the dynamic is different.

To date, except for four or five recent posts, all communities I have described have been prehistoric. However another situation also exists which produces profound economic social and political changes for prehistoric communities. This is drug trading between an established, literate, drug-using country and one that is drug-naïve, with a poor and isolated population, and only a few, if any, educated individuals; that is, a community still struggling to emerge from the prehistoric stage. What happens is: members of the drug-controlling group introduce novel and powerful psychoactive drugs to the prehistoric group. As a result the prehistoric community becomes addicted, and concentrates time and resources on some aspect of drug consumption instead of customary activities. This dislocates the status quo, reallocates time and resources, creates new elites and re distributes power.

It is easy to think here of the flow of cocaine and heroin from Third World countries into Europe and the Anglo-sphere; the consequent economic, legal and political effects the latter experienced, and the negative moral values which developed. That is not my topic; I am writing here of an earlier period, the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. During this time period many European countries including England, France, Spain, Germany, and Portugal (in what ever political format these peoples belonged to at the time) pushed psychoactive substances onto prehistoric populations. The European aim was economic gain and a toe hold in what might, and often did, become European colonies.

This happened whether the drugs were CNS (Central Nervous System) stimulants like coca and kola, depressants like alcohol  opium, and kava, or bi-phasic drugs like the nicotine-rich pituri and tobacco.

The historian Van Onselen (1976) argues that the role of alcohol became particularly important in the 18th and 19th centuries. At the time  there was no way no way of  storing agricultural surpluses which often occurred in Europe as the  result of  local conditions, such as land distribution or technological innovation. However a solution existed. Over the centuries  Europeans had gradually learnt how to distill alcohol from carbohydrates. Instead of allowing excess  crops to rot as once happened, communities began turning surplus agricultural produce, whether potatoes  or grain, into spirits.  But a further problem became evident. A great glut of grain and potato crops occurred in Europe in the latter half of the 19th century and it was not always possible to sell the  surplus of crop-based spirits.

The spirits producers turned to the captive colonial markets,  particularly black indigenous Africans  By the 1880s, the Boer farmers who had settled in the Transvaal were turning surplus grain into alcohol and  accumulating capital by its sale in modest local markets. With the discovery of gold, the population grew enormously.  The owners and managers of the mines found  alcohol useful in recruiting and holding tribal  African workers.  The importance of liquor in this regard was consciously recognized; indeed, talk about possible total prohibition caused the Standard  and Diggers’ News (1892, quoted in Van Onselen 1976:50) to  warn its readers in an editorial that it

 [it is the liquor trade alone] that ensures the [mining] Fields a labor supply.  Constrict it, and the Rand’s real troubles will begin.

Liquor canteens became good recruiting centers for Africans workers from the colony of Mozambique.  Perry, manager of the mine owners’ recruiting agency, noted that Mozambique miners were ideal in that they spent their money on alcohol rather  than on cattle, and that periods of work resulted, not in a  return to their rural homelands, but in drunkenness and idleness.  The consequence was a return to mine work in  order to have the means to buy more liquor.

Initially, rural Afrikaners and the mining capitalists formed an alliance.  Miners needed the liquor to  recruit and hold their workers.  The rural producers and the  distillery needed the African miners to convert the grain  surplus into capital. So mine executives served on the  Board of the Distillery, and rural Afrikaners owned mine  shares.  And at a lower level, some mine managers held the  liquor licenses at local canteens, and miners were partly paid with alcohol.

Nevertheless, a contradiction arose.  The time came  when miners were consuming large quantities of local spirits  plus imported German potato spirits.  Quite aside from the  effects this had on African health and family life, it  lowered work productivity.  On any one day, between 15 and  25 percent of the laborers were unfit for work. And  when mining  management found it necessary to switch from open cut to the  more demanding deep mining, a sober  and careful labor force became essential.

Mining management no longer found liquor useful.   African drinking became a moral issue, and mining companies  achieved a total prohibition of alcohol sales to African  workers.  However, this was at the cost of a break in the  formal alliance between mine executives and Afrikaner rural  power. And despite total prohibition, sales continued to  Africans because alcohol production had not been prohibited, but only its distribution.

While prohibition discouraged about 50 percent of the  small retailers, at the same time it enormously increased  the profit of those defiant enough to continue selling.   Sales were aided by police corruption and by the presence of  another ethnic group, East European Jews.  Earlier  immigrants of this origin had been fairly successfully  integrated into Transvaal life.  Indeed, they had  accumulated capital themselves through distilling and  retailing alcohol.  However, those who came in the 1890s had  far fewer opportunities, and eventually they found  employment with illicit liquor syndicates.

These syndicates provided African miners with vast  quantities of spirits, and alcohol consumption continued to  be a source of irritation and unnecessary cost to the mine owners and to the foreign capital invested in the mines.  Eventually war broke out between the Boers and Britain. British administration closed the Distillery, East European  Jews were deported, the illicit liquor syndicates were  smashed, and the wages of African miners reduced.  Thus, foreign capital interests in South African mines were secured, and mining capitalism became the dominant force in  South African economy.

The historian Van Onselen (1976) argues that the above account is an example of general processes occurring elsewhere. Because of alcohol’s acceptability, the drug’s production and  distribution became important in the transition from declining, agriculturally- based, feudal regimes in Europe to early  capitalism and, accompanying this, to the expansion of  European imperialism.


Despite prehistoric drugs being my topic,  here I stretch the envelope a bit.  No prehistoric accounts describe any one individual deliberately using drugs to express, communicate  and reflect his/her cultural values and structures.That does not mean it did not happen. Many examples of this practice exist in historical and modern records as I have, and will further, describe. These  take place seemingly irrespective of race, class, geography, and  subsistence technology. So it seems possible, even probable, that use of drugs to signal social values, position and structure  also occurred in the prehistoric.

Dame Mary Douglas (1978:93‑112) was a prolific British social anthropologist known for her writings on human culture and symbolism. She argued that social information is transmitted by a range of media, one of which is the physical body. The body’s actions, its expressions, and its appearances, Douglas argues, is  everywhere culturally organized  to one degree or another, in order to express and reflect the structure and values of the  social world.

For example individuals eat special foods to celebrate weddings and religious festivals like Christmas. Withdrawing nourishment sends alternate signals: penitence  or obedience as in Ramadan and Lent; or perhaps the desire to project a more youthful appearance. Hair is equally versatile for communication. Is it rigidly coiffured, or does it flow freely below the shoulder line? Is it curly? Or tonsured?  Or tousled and sun streaked? And is the cut ‘short back and sides?’ or a no 1 cut ? or shaved in patches and  stubble-like elsewhere?

Besides adapting the visible  body and its paraphernalia to role –playing and information transmitting, individuals also  change their minds–literally. People chemically re‑orient their Central Nervous System,  altering their moods,  feelings, perceptions and orientations between themselves and  the external world. Why does this happen? Assuming that the need for harmony in symbols is as psychologically essential and universal as Douglas (1978)  suggests, perhaps drug use in these circumstances appears as the appropriate thing to do.

But note: use of  drugs which expresses social values and goals lies somewhere along a continuum stretching from the instrumental to the symbolic.  When use is instrumental, the value or goal  is objectively furthered by the physiological consequences of  drug consumption.  For example,  in many parts of the world drug use associates itself with the role of warrior. When the drug is a stimulant, like the amphetamines said to be given to British flyers in WWII, drug use is instrumental; it reduces fatigue, provides a surge of  energy etc, and thus contributes to success in battle.  By contrast in its declining and unsuccessful years, the north Indian Mughal army leaders used extra large amounts of opium before battles (Eraly1997) This was not instrumental since opium is a strong depressant.

Some references:

Among the Quechua [Inca] people of Peru and Bolivia, coca chewing is a powerful means of differentiating themselves from other ethnic groups. Handling, sharing, and consumption are closely governed by rules of etiquette. Adherence to these rules implies the presentation of one’s self as a participant in this [Quechua] tradition.

To Be Quechua: the Symbolism of Cocoa Chewing in Highland Peru  C. Allen  (1981:157).

Ah, devil ether ‑ a total body drug.  The mind recoils in horror, unable to communicate with the spinal column.  The hands flap crazily, unable to get  money out of the pocket… garbled laughter and hissing from the mouth… always smiling [author’s ellipses].  Ether is the perfect drug for Las Vegas.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Hunter S. Thompson 980:47).


St Patrick’s Day—that’s white peoples’ day. They get scary when they drink—all in a big crowd pretendin’ they’re Irish and looking for trouble.

Drinking Politics  (An African American comment)Marcus  (my files).


And below, a  contrary example: an Aboriginal Elder argues that tying alcohol consumption to a significant cultural value in isolated Aboriginal desert camps has disastrous consequences.

Indigenous generosity and reciprocity are admirable, and indeed beautiful features of our [Aboriginal] culture. But when you add addiction to foreign substances and habits to this culture, things that are admirable and beautiful become deformed and destructive. Demand sharing and alcohol just don’t mix. Cultural obligation makes it near impossible for Aborigines to ‘normalise’ their drinking.[1]

‘Shared descent into the maelstrom of addiction.’  Noel Pearson.  Director of the Cape York Institute for Public Policy  in The Week End Australian. October 13-14, 2012.


Liquor  advertising, which is designed to efficiently persuade people to consume particular brands of alcohol, pursues this task by associating alcohol with admired social values and goals, not by stressing the pleasures of drinking (my emphasis).  McConville  (1983) made a study of all advertisements appearing in the print media in Great Britain during the first quarter of 1982.  She found that when men were the target of sales campaigns, liquor consumption was tied to ‘challenge, dominance, competition, and remaining unmarried’(1983:59).   When potential women buyers were considered, again the pleasure of  drinking went unmentioned.The ‘bait’ of advertisements aimed at women was pairing off with a man; there are no advertisements which appeal to women on any other basis (McConville 1983:59).

In a more recent publication (2006), AC Nielsen refers to an international study investigating the role of taste as the determining factor in the choice of beer brands among dedicated users.  However, ‘blind’ tests soon revealed that difference in taste was not the critical issue as had been pre-supposed. In most countries, the most successful beer brands were those that symbolize group cohesion, equality and male bonding.

The use of drugs to relieve the consumer of responsibility for subsequent negative or destructive acts belongs in this category.  The sociologist  Pattison (1981) argued that many individuals in Western cultures use alcohol in this way, consuming it in quantity so that there is a reasonable expectation that such use may well result in arguments, accidents, sexual misconduct and  other inappropriate behavior.  Alcohol use is then claimed as social exoneration for the deviant conduct which follows. This became a feminist issue in the 1980s, when Jocelynne Scutt, a noted Australian feminist and barrister, writer, and columnist, argued  that accepting excessive alcohol use as an excuse for rape and domestic violence was a sexist rationalization.

Institutionalized ‘escape’ or ‘time out’ mechanisms occur in other cultures as well. There is  ‘wild‑man’ behavior in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, and the ‘beserker’ role in Scandinavia. In both latter cases drug use renders the perpetrator unable to carry out onerous economic responsibilities.

With regard to alcohol, it has been claimed that the  greater the number of positive, social reasons for use, the  higher will be the level of individual consumption. If true, this aspect of the use of legal drugs in Western  society may provide one  reason why drugs like heroin have had  negative connotations. Because heroin use is not an articulation of socially accepted  values, its consumption (and those of other  drugs)  becomes the  private, purposeful, creation of pleasure in one’s own body  without the help of another.  Trebach (1982:272) argues that  this is the reason that heroin use is viewed by “straight”  society as an activity in the same class as masturbation.


My next couple of blogs examine the power and political influence possessed by people who control access to psychoactive substances.


Douglas, M. 1978 Natural Symbols.  Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Eraly, A.1997.  The Mughal World : India’s Tainted Paradise. India: Weindenfeld & Nicolson

McConville, B. 1983 Women under the influence: alcohol and its impact.  London: Virago Press.

Neilsen       reference missing

Pattison, E.M. 1981  A bio‑psycho‑social analysis of alcohol and drug abuse: implications for social policy.  In L.R.H. Drew, Pierre Stolz and W.A. Barclay (eds.) Man, drugs and society: current perspectives.  Proceedings of the First Pan‑Pacific Conference on Drugs and Alcohol, Canberra, Australia, 1980.  Canberra: The Australian Foundation on  Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

Scutt.  J .1981 The alcoholic imperative: a sexist rationalization of rape and domestic violence.  In L.R.H. Drew, Pierre Stolz and W.A. Barclay (eds, .)  Man, drugs and society: current perspectives.  Proceedings of the First Pan‑Pacific Conference on Drugs and Alcohol, Canberra, Australia 1980.  Canberra: The Australian Foundation on  Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

Trebach  A.1982 The heroin solution.  New Haven: Yale University Press.


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.


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 .