It it is compelling that, in the first recorded appearance of psychoactive substances in the New World, drug use presents itself as a mechanism used by a population to meet social, economic, and religious needs. Pecos people and their neighbors consumed their drug as a means of confronting the fear and anxiety of the hunt or the war, the economic imperative of locating food in perilous environments, the drive some individuals felt to achieve power, ritual privileges and leadership, and the possible standards ordinary members of society might apply in judging an individual’s capacity for leadership.

Something of comparable value can be said about the use of pituri by pre-European Aboriginal Australians. Although no white knowledge exists of how this population conceptualized pituri use, nor or any significant social-cultural features which linked to pituri consumption, it was obvious to white observers that  people who controlled access to the drug  wielded power over others, and that individuals possessing sufficient surplus of the drug could initiate the annual flow of  complex trading systems. Demand for the drug  was so high that at least one community seems to have responded by an intensified use of land.

Given that both these ancient drug histories illustrate a linkage between drug consumption and economic, political, religious and social goals, could these  patterns be discerned through time?  Probably some of them, I concluded, perhaps enough to establish that frequently drug consumption is culturally useful and appropriate, as well as potentially dangerous.

If  modern accounts of psycho-active substances are added to ethnographic data, to fragmentary evidence from archaeology, information from old pharmacopoeias, the findings from linguistic, botanical, and folkloric studies, and references to drug use  in ancient scripts, what emerges is that societies generally find three major tasks for drug consumption in the socio-cultural area. In the economic and political field, the picture is more complex.  Drug use  is frequently associated  with profound changes in these areas. And in many situations the relationship seems a causal one,  in which those who control access to drugs manipulate supply for their own gain.


Societies and individuals address one or more of three socio-cultural issues with drugs

  •  People employ drugs to facilitate communication  with the ‘supernatural’.  Under this term  I include all those abstract entities,  referred to by  terms such as  god/s,  spirits, deities, religious and heavenly beings, and inspirers of creativity.
  • People consume drugs to create a socially-shared and altered reality in  which structured, differentiated society loosens its hold, creating an ‘anti-structure ‘in which  role playing and hierarchies diminish, human interaction increases, and social bonding occurs.
  • People consume drugs to  create or emphasize an image of themselves or others which is relevant to a particular situation. In this case, use lies along a spectrum from the instrumental to the symbolic

Communication with the supernatural. All societies seek the values of the ideal life and the practices by which these  can be achieved.  Communication with supernatural forces is a means to this end in most ethical/religious systems.  ‘Upwards’ go petitions, prayers, request for help, spiritual offerings, and sacrifice. In return down come advice, warnings, omens, occasional divine  appearances, demands for further human privations such as fasts or quests for enlightenment, plus rewards for virtue and punishment for evil.  In  most parts of  world  societies have,or still do, link this communication with consumption of  mind-altering substances. As mentioned earlier in the post of  March 15th 2012, Paleolithic people living in the Northern Hemisphere employ plant drugs for this reason, as did those first  populations who migrated into North, South and Middle America. At least ten thousand  years elapsed as this pattern of use continued in the Americas alone. Australian Aborigines have a 5, 000 use of pituri in what appears to be  a spiritual connection.

 The archaeologist/anthropologist Andrew Sherratt from the University of Oxford wrote that it can no longer be doubted that drug consumption has been ‘fundamental to human life and is likely to be at least as old as the emergence of Homo sapiens (1995).  Taking this statement as written,  Sherratt is not  claiming outright that drug use and spiritual communication  are as old as humanity. But since drugs alter states of consciousness, drugs by definition allow consumers to transcend ordinary or common experience,  thoughts or beliefs and interrogate alternatives. From an atheistic and humanist perspective, this potentially links drug consumption to spiritual concepts.

Providing a comprehensive account of this association between drugs and religion world-wide is un-achievable, given the vast  number of  instances, the fragmentary nature of the evidence, and the fact that no written  languages existed prior to 5000 BC. Nevertheless,two instances have intrinsic interest: one because  it  is the oldest written record drug use in a religious context; , the second because its probably the last significant bloom of ancient shamanism in European history.  I repeat them below


Perhaps as long ago as 4 000 B.P, a  nomadic people calling themselves Aryans spread south-east from their point of origin, finally settling in the Indus valley in what is now Iran. They were patriarchal cattle herders who  spoke Sanskrit, and were the first peoples  to domesticate the horse. Not surprisingly, their religious beliefs and rituals related to cattle and the way of life which herding imposed on them. Intrinsic to their prayers, wishes and rituals was soma, an intoxicating, and now, today, a mysterious, plant substance.  Soma was also a male moon god, perhaps a unique conjunction in mythologyy.  The  insights and pleasures soma  bestowed appear in The Rig Vedas, the oldest literary product of  Hindu religio.n

Thy juices, purified Soma, all pervading, swift as thought, go of themselves like the off-spring of swift mares…

He  [Soma] excites reverence, watches over the herds, and leads by the shortest road to success…

  He makes the sun rise in the heavens, restores what has been lost, has a thousands ways and means of help, heals all, chases away the black skin and gives everything into the possession of the pious Ary

Soma is an example of difficulties faced by researchers seeking information about psycho-active plants in the distant past. For some unknown reason, the Aryans gave up the consumption of soma soon after arriving in the IndusValley. Perhaps they failed to get the plant to grow in their new territory. Consequently nobody today is certain of the plant’s identity.  After decades of studying the issue, R.Gordon Wasson, the ethno-botanist from  Harvard University’s Museum of Botany, argued that soma is the hallucinogenic fly-agaric (Amanita muscaria). This is the mushroom of Alice in Wonderland and other children’s tales, with its red top spotted with white.   Many disagree with Wesson’s conclusion. One caveat is that, during ritual, priests produced a juice from soma,  and this seems unlikely were the latter a mushroom. Other suggestions identify soma with  Ephedra, (the source of the stimulant ephedrine), or fermented mares milk, or haoma,  a chemical found in Syrian rue (Peganum harmala). The secret may never be revealed. Scholars able to translate the Rig Veda usually lack skills in botany, pharmacology and pharmacognosy, and perhaps  miss significant clues to the plant’s identity.

Margaret Mead and Tobacco Producers has relevance today. First is the question of what part, if any, does time play in a society’s ability to control and integrate drug production and consumption? Integration should be at a level sufficient for the society to continue its life and  vital activities without becoming hostage to drug demand. An opportunity to discuss this point arises because I have two series of posts on nicotine-containing plants: nicotine-in-tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) among the Mundugumor and nicotine-in-pituri (Duboisia hopwoodii) among Australian Aborigines.

In Mead’s account of the Mundugumor, its people have allowed tobacco to become central to the universal tasks the Mundugumor, like all societies,  must accomplish to stay viable. The only route to leadership for the Mundugumor  is by extensive tobacco cultivation. This presents problems in labour and time. The Mundugumor solve the former by capturing foreign (non-Mundugumor) women to work the tobacco fields; the later solution also involves foreign labour: manufactured items like fishing nets, mats, and baskets once woven by the Mundugumor themselves are now outsourced to the grass villages. The time saved allows Mundugumor leaders’ wives more time in the tobacco fields, and men more opportunity to create theatrical spectacles. In turn the latter brings prestige to the leader which brings him more followers, more success in warfare, more wives etc. etc.

Similarly Mundugumor people have allowed tobacco wealth to trigger the timing of initiation rites. Once these were once-in-a-life time events; the whole community participating as young adolescents adopted the role and responsibilities of manhood. Now Mead claims initiations are ‘faddish’,  held  when one or other of the grass villages offers a spectacular cult figure to a Mundugumor leader. The latter then stages initiations into the new rites from which many individuals can be excluded.

Rage jealously and violence  fill Mead’s account of the Mundugumor.  You can understand why. I was left wondering how long it would be before the Mundugumor group imploded. (Note the question of drug legality or illegality as a cause of dysfunction does not arise here.)

My posts about nicotine-in-pituri (Duboisia hopwoodii) among Australian Aborigines run from 3/9/2011 to 13/11/2011. In the hundreds of references to pituri production, exchange/trade, and use which I consulted, there is no suggestion of anger or any of the ill-will that bedevils tobacco production exchange and consumption among the Mundugumor.  It is true that material on pituri suggested Aboriginal people had developed methods of exchanging pituri that differed from customary exchanges among hunter/gatherers; and similarly the scale of pituri involved in distribution also suggested some sort of planned plant manipulation not usually part of this life-style. But these changes do not appear as a source of angst.

Many  differences existed between the two situations of course: pituri was a perennial; tobacco an annual. Mundugumor were horticulturalists, Aboriginal people hunter/gatherers.  The Aboriginal people appear to have had far greater knowledge of the effects of nicotine on human physiology than did the Mundugumor; the former exploited nicotine’s bi-phasic  and trans-dermal qualities but the Mundugumor did not. But I think the salient difference may have been time. Use of nicotine-in-pituri has existed for about 5 millennia (Yen  1993). The Mundugumor experience of nicotine-in-tobacco may be no more than two generations old. That is a  coloe difference, time enough to bring drug demand under control  if the society so desired. .

This argument that the Mudugumor only had tobacco crops for a short while, is a bit circuitous. Mead herself observed  the Mundugumor lacked skill at managing their canoes, and their wives continuously worried about children drowning. This led Mead to believe the Mundugumor had only been resident in their  present river-side site for one or two generations . Villagers confirmed this,  saying they had moved from their  ‘arse ples’ to better their lives.  Taking a generation span as  15 –25 years, the Mundugumor may have arrived at the site which Mead found them some time between 1880s-1900s. So was the tobacco plant already on site, just waiting to be loved?

Possibly. However tobacco was not native toNew Guinea. After its enthusiastic ‘discovery’ by Christopher Columbus in 1492  the plant spread rapidly outwards from South America.  Because tobacco is addictive, sailors and travellers carried tobacco seeds with them. At every port of call they distributed seeds freely, ensuring they themselves were always able to replenish supplies. South American tobacco reached New Guineain the 1500s, along with Europe and almost everywhere else ships could drop anchor. But the plant did not  really get established as a crop inNew Guinea because of the hostile terrain and climate.

I think a likely scenario is that tobacco and the incoming, soon-to-be,  Mundugumor population arrived  together on the Yuat River,  At that time, the later half of the 1800s ,New Guinea  was wide open to outsiders.  Europeans arrived to administer, missionaries came searching for souls; adventurers looking for adventure; groups slogged through the terrain prospecting for gold and minerals, plantation enthusiasts searched for potential commercial crops.  In the time frame in question, 1880-1900,  Germans  and British/Australian  groups were both on  Yuat River and grass villages, presumably with indigenous porters, guides etc. I think one or other of these expeditions brought tobacco seeds with them, sowing them  together with copra (coconuts) where ever they visited. Only on the one patch of  high well drained soil in the region, the Mundugumor site, did tobacco grasp hold and flourish.  For some reason, the Europeans left the isolated and malaria-riven site. Their indigenous companions may have remained on what must have seemed to them a godsend: empty, fertile, well-drained land in an otherwise inauspicious region.

The newly arrived Mundugumor were drug naïve. They had no reason to think of tobacco as any different from taro, yams and sugarcane they already possessed: just another plant they could grow, eat and exchange/trade with one another and with the grass villages. In fact tobacco was addictive and initial use promoted further use. Demand must have increased exponentially in the 30 to 50 years which passed in Mundugumor before Mead arrived.  The decisive question is, could tobacco use have become so entrenched and the society so socially and economically disrupted, in only 30 to 50 years?

I can only speculate here.  Since tobacco took only about 50 years to spread from outwards from South America round much of the globe, it seems possible for tobacco to have the impact it did in Mead’ s   Mundugumor over the 30-50 years before Mead arrived.


My analysis of the role of tobacco in Mead’s account of the Mundugumor is the second issue which I believe resonates today. Mead was a pioneer in human rights and feminism. She always argued that patterns of racism, sexism, warfare, and environmental exploitation were learned behaviour and could be changed by discussion. Her capacity to educate the American public in these areas was exceptional. Therefore her description of the Mundugumor in Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies came as a shock.  Why was she so harsh and judgemental? She was even more outspoken with friends, referring to the Mundugumor as disorganized and dysfunctional, with an  increase in complexity of life that made their society unworkable (Young 1993).

A few individuals commented that Mead had lost her fine ethnographers’ eye;  others mentioned the stress marriage breakdowns cause when both partners are doing field work together. But I do not think the fault lay with Mead. I think this is another example of society’s values  determining knowledge,  a theme in my blog.

Mead was possibly as naïve about drugs as the Mundugmor.  It was 1932 when she did her research: drug consciousness among English-speaking and European peoples did not really begin until 30 years later with the adoption of a large range of psychoactive substances among US students.  Tobacco itself was not considered addictive until the later decades of the 20th century.  I think Mead’s descriptions of the anger and breakdown of Mudugumor life were probably correct.  Her error lay in believing the three societies was comparable. Actually there were only two comparable societies, both  producing vegetables, carbohydrates and fruit; and one society focusing on producing and

consuming a highly addictive drug.   Mainly because of the time period, Mead lacked the background to recognize an ‘Acapulco on the Sepik’.



McDowell, Nancy 1991   The Mundugumor: From the Field Notes of Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune. Smithsonian Institute Press.

 Mead, Margaret. 1963  [1935]   Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies.  New York; William Morrow.


 Michael Young 1993   A Review:  The Mundugumor: From the Field Notes of Margaret Mead and Reo Fortune. Pacific Studie, Vol16 No.4

in Pacific Studies Vol 16 No 4

The Sepik River basinbecame the general area within which Mead  selected three societies to investigate links between sex and temperament. While each society would be unique in terms of culture, they would be similar in life styles: ‘primitive’ tribal people living in permanent homes and cultivating small mixed gardens.  Stone and wood technology would shape their material lives.

Mead arrived in the Sepik River Basinsociety of the Mundugumor  people in late 1932 with her colleague and husband Reo Fortune. Three years before the couple’s arrival, the Australian  Administration outlawed war, headhunting and cannibalism.  Mead noted (1963[1935]:167),’ Mundugumor life stopped dead, like a watch of which the mainspring is broken’. Mead decided her account would be ‘the life as it had been lived up to three years before we came to the people’ (Mead 1963:167).   Accordingly, her material is not the result of direct  observation as is customary with anthropologists, but a reconstruction of what went before and passed through several heads and mouths before her own.

Mead found about a thousand Mundugumor people living in four villages on opposite sides of the swift  flowing Yuat River. The villages had a monopoly of land which was both high and fertile This was exceptional: all the land for many miles around  was a vast grass land swamp. The Mundugumor lived in huts made from sago palms. Each family had near-by a garden of fruit and vegetables and at least three tree crops: coconuts, betel nut and sago palms. Some of the families also had tobacco plots. The river provided plentiful fish. The rain forest near-by offered (for free) varieties of game, wild foods and spices; ochres and feathers for rituals; timber for musical instruments, for house and canoe building, and for fashioning spears and shields for head hunting and cannibalism.

All the material culture items Mundugumor people needed in their daily lives they got  by trading their tobacco to the miserable half-starved ‘grass’ villages who surrounded them: items of fishing technology like nets, lines and canoe paddles; baskets of all sizes, cooking pots; sleeping baskets, floor mats etc. Once the Mundugumor had made their own implements. Now they preferred to outsource their needs. They claimed this gave their  men more time for theatrical spectacles and head hunting, and the women longer periods of toil in their husband’s tobacco gardens (Mead 1963:171).  And see figure below) Nevertheless the Mundugumor appreciated the possible conflict of interests that could arise. They were careful, they told Mead, not to eat those villagers who supplied essential items like mosquito nets.

Mundugumor power and plenitude did not produce a peaceful, united society. Instead it was a competitive one. Mundugumor men and women alike were violent and aggressive: ‘actively masculine, virile and without any of the softening and mellowing characteristics we are accustomed to believe are inalienably womanly’ (Mead:1963:236) Sons were alienated from fathers,  brother stood against brother and step brother, neighbours distrusted one another .

Mead explains this by an absence of factors among the Mundugumor that might have softened the brutality. The Men’s House, found everywhere else in PNG, no longer existed.  Male initiations had lost their traditional meaning. They were no longer an enriching event with their community witnessing young males being admitted to manhood. Instead initiation had become a faddish event.  Occasionally some leader would decide to ‘import’ a foreign religious figure, and this required every male to be initiated into the new cult (Mead 1963:175) See figure. This split the villagers.  Not every man chose to under go an additional initiation, and not every man was given the opportunity.

Then their was the issue of descent. Normally everywhere, this occurs through the father, the mother, or both parents. What Mead describes in action among the Mundugumor in 1932 is unique: daughters belong to their father’s line of descent and sons to their mother’s. Consequently in a large polygamous family of husband, four  wives and their children, five lines of descent would exist. within the same household. In Mead’s time about two or three of every 100 men achieved polygamous marriages.  Achieving this ideal caused intense arguments within marriages.

Tobacco lay at the center of these disputes. Mead claimed that a mans only chance of power and prestige lay in having extensive tobacco fields and enough wives to work them. (Mead 1963: 191)But obtaining a wife among the Mundugumor required brother sister exchanges. So any man wanting a wife, or another wife, needed a sister to marry the brother of his future wife. Consequently men struggled to control the disposition of their sisters, while fathers  attempted to manipulate their daughters; each male in the polygamous family aiming for greater tobacco production, more wealth and prestige and swelling  numbers of followers, etcetera.


Figure 1.The flow of tobacco through Mundugumor society in 1932 as described by Margaret Mead in her book Sex and Temperament in a Primitive Society.

To recapitulate,  Mead’s research interest in New Guinea reflected an anthropological theme  prominent in her early work( 1924-1935). Was culture more  influential in human behaviour than  biology?   Did  males and females have the characteristic temperament recognized in  United States culture  as ‘typically’ male and ‘typically’ female because biology determined these traits? Mead believed not. In her mind, a society’s values, its world view, its history, its environment etc, would determine whether bold and assertive behaviour attached to males; or to females; or to neither; or both.   Mead chose to research this question in three separate ‘primitive’ and tribal horticultural groups in the Sepik River Basin of Papua New Guinea.  In  the Mundugumor Mead found a violent aggressive people:  men and women alike being masculine and without softness or tenderness. From Mead’s  point of view,  Mundugumor society had standardized the temperments of  both men and women in the same mold. This was a plus for Mead’ s hypotheses.

I believe Mead was recording something different, a process rarely described:  the collapse of a society whose values and social structures are being eroded away–almost by chance–because  their community happens to possess a regional monopoly of tobacco in a region which craves it.

My next post examines the relevance of Mundugumor tobacco use for contemporary questions about drugs.

No anthropologist thinks of Margaret Mead, the famous US anthropologist, as providing information on tobacco as a transformative agent in the economic and social life of a ‘primitive society’. The idea sounds out of character for Margaret Mead; at odds with her training as a cultural anthropologist. Nevertheless, this happened, perhaps unconsciously.  In her book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies the back story that Mead provides for one of these societies, the Mundugumor, reveals drug production and exchange/trade associated with disruptive social and economic changes.

Mead courageously chose New Guineaas as her research setting. New Guineas is a Pacific Ocean  island about twice the size of California. It lies geographically to the east of the Malay Archipelago and to the north-east of Australia. Anthropologically, New Guinea i s  considered part of Melanesia, not Polynesia. Europeans first ‘discovered’ the island about the 16th century,  and since then New Guinea has had a mixed colonial history. As of 2012, the western half of the island comprises two Indonesian provinces: Papua and  West Papua. The eastern half has been a German colony, a League of Nations Protectorate, and an Australian colony. Now it is independent and known as Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Seen from above, PNG seems a  sea island paradise: sparkling seas,  coral atolls, mangrove-margined rivers, sandy palm-lined beaches.  But it has less idyllic aspects.  Much of the land is mountainous. Mists and clouds wrap their crests, and the mountains’ steep angles of ascent transform into equally precipitous descent into deep, narrow valleys. These hold isolated and culturally-diverse societies who cultivate small food gardens  Warfare is common there, as is sorcery.

Beyond the jungle-covered mountains lie wide stretches of crocodile- infested swamps and almost-uninhabitable grasslands. Strong and swift rivers, rich in fish, cut  through this terrain. One of the largest rivers is the Sepik. Occasional villages dot its bank and also those of tributary rivers.  But no roads reach these places. Transport is by raft or long, shallow, dugout canoes. Tracks do exist through the swamps, but their whereabouts is tightly held for fear that cannibals or head-hunters could use them for raiding.

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.

The lower Pecos may not be the earliest place in the Americas where people utilized psychoactive drugs, but to date, it is the earliest evidence of drug use in the New World. As in ancient Egypt, in Pecos caves the dry desert air desiccated organic objects like wood, food, mescal bean, bone (lower rodent mandibles) woven objects (ritual basket), and cave paintings. The caves’ situation high up on cliffs removed any damage of water from flooding rivers below. Consequently, some remnants ofPecos actions and values remained for us to contemplate. Other in-coming Siberian peoples must have settled, searched and discovered replacements for the drugs they had used in their past homes, but conditions favoring preservation of their culture and their drug use did not exist,

FromPecos(and similar but unknown places) knowledge of visionary shamanism diffused outwards. As people gradually settled throughout  North Central, andSouth Americathey kept their ancient emphasis on shamanism. But the settlers needed additional pharmacognostic research.  Mescal bean itself grew only in a small area. Settlers moving beyond mescal bean’s natural distribution pattern  needed to continuously identify local psychoactive substances which would permit shamanic rituals, and hence community sustenance.

Their experimentation proved successful. By the time Europeans arrived, native Americans were utilizing between 80-100 psychoactive substances in a ritual context. In contrast, inEuropein the same period, people employed only about eight to ten psychoactive plants: alcohol (which is made from plants ) opium, a number of  tropane-containing plants (those ubiquitous true hallucinogens falsely suspected of being the active ingredients in pituri), and cannabis. Small ritual vessels found in rich burials in Bronze AgeBritainand elsewhere suggest to the archaeologist Sherratt that people may have burned and then inhaled not only cannabis but other mind-altering plants as yet unidentified

The anomaly of people utilizing more psychoactive plants in the New World than they did in the Old World intrigued many scholars including Richard Evans Schulte, an ethno-botanist and the recognized authority on New World hallucinogens, and Weston La Barre, a leading anthropologist in the fields of religion and psychology. Together, they posited that the reverse situation would be far more credible; that is, Old World societies should be utilizing more kinds of psychoactive plants than theNew Worldpeoples used.

The Old World has a greater land mass, a flora at least as rich and varied as theNew World, and probably the same number of hallucinogenic plants. Moreover, people have existed in parts of theOld Worldonwards since the time of proto-humans (that is, millennia before the emergence of Homo sapiens about 70 000 years ago). Consequently,Old Worldsocieties have had untold time to explore their environment and identify many mind-altering substances. Yet there is presently little evidence of this beyond the meager eight to ten plants already known.

Schultes and La Barre  speculated about this anomaly. They decided that  economic, social and religious changes account for the difference. Visionary shamanism complemented the hunting and gathering lifestyles which originally existed in both the Old and New World. As long as this lifestyle dominated, wide knowledge and use of drug plants existed. But when societies in Europe and Eurasia turned to farming in the Neolithic period—which began in varied times in varied places some time after 10 000 BPE and before about 2 000BPE—people of that time found visionary shamanism less valuable or appropriate, and knowledge of psychoactive plants slowly declined. The intolerant fanaticism of Old Worldreligions, 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 many drug-using Old Worldcommunities.  However, when Christianity arrived in the Middle and South Americasin the 15th century, it attacked drug-related shamanism but it lacked the force to significantly defeat it. Consequently, a pharmacopoeia of useful psychoactive plants remained within the public domain.

What is ironic is that Catholicism, which had helped destroy visionary shamanism, itself ensures that the structural link between the supernatural and the psychoactive continuously repeats itself acrossEuropeand beyond.  In the Mass, the priest miraculously changes the psychoactive alcohol (wine) into the blood of Christ; The priest  drinks the chalice of  Christ’s blood; and under its authority the priest bestows Christ’s blessing on his people. The priest delivers a sermon to the congregation which outlines and interprets Christ’s suffering for, and affirmations to, humanity, and, in turn, humanity’s obligations to Christ. Even suffering exists as a mutual ingredient. The shaman usually displays the effects of the toxic drug used: tremors, vomiting, spasms or loss of consciousness etc.  These validate the shaman, and are taken as his willingness to suffer to aid others.

The ancient link between psychoactive substance and religion resonates today, I believe. The connection between wine and the Blood of Christ is so momentous and intrinsic to Catholic beliefs and ritual, that the Church finds it impossible to classify alcohol as just one psychoactive substance among many. Hence, its continuous use of the phrase ‘alcohol and drugs’ particularly damaging inVaticanhealth directives to medical professionals.

Another echo of the supernatural/drug linkage appears in the ‘drug-active/ people-passive’ construction. There can be no doubt than in the ancient past, chance encounters between individuals and psychoactive plants must have awed the accidental user. Drug plants which seemed to conjure up supernatural beings and altered consumers’ minds and emotions quite naturally appeared active and powerful in respect to humans. This may explain how the concept began that drugs could ‘alter’ behavior, ‘cause’ mishaps, ‘ruin’ judgments, etcetera..


Finally, an irony:  Despite the United States’ intolerance of psychoactive drugs, except psychoactive alcohol, theUnited Statesincludes inTexasthe area where people had continuously consumed the same drug (mescal bean) for longer than any one psychoactive drug has been consumed elsewhere.


Range of the Plains Indians at the time of European contact (source: Wikipedia).

Although the advent of the Spanish caused the destruction of Pecos society, Plains Indian tribes, the Apache, Comanche, Iowa, Kansa, Omaha, Pawnee, and others had already adopted use of mescal bean and visionary shamanism from the Pecos River societies.  Cowboy and Indian movies of the 1930s and 1940s drew ispiration from  these tribes from the plains of middle USA;  strong nosed-people with magnificent feathered war ‘bonnets’, tee-pees, peace pipes; and often fresh scalps swaying and dripping from the bridles of their horses.  Most Plains Indians were hunters and warriors with a horse-based culture. A  few were horticulturalist, and a few mixed the two strategies.

How and when  mescal bean shamanism diffused into Plains Indian groups is unknown . But by 1539, Plains Indian tribes had captured Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish ‘hidalgo’ (which at that time meant a member of the Spanish aristocracy or gentry).  He became a  Christian slave among the warring tribes. In one comparatively happy period in the Texas/Mexico region, Cabeza de Vaca  survived as a ‘neutral merchant’ His diary notes exchanging, among other things… ‘fruit like a bean which the Indians value very highly, using it for a medicine and for a ritual beveridge in their dances and festivities’.  Richard Evans Schultes, a prominent ethno-botanist and the recognized authority on New World hallucinogens identified Cabeza de Vaca’s  ‘bean’  as  mescal bean (Sophora secundiflora) .

White observers from the  17th century onwards centuries left brief accounts of visionary drug use among Plains Indian tribes. Many reports contain description of dress, body decorations and other items coinciding with material items occurring in the paintings, made thousands of year earlier. For example, the fur skins worn over the arm appear in both cave paintings and early white reports. Even the ritual basket’s rodent jaws shed their weirdness and gain authority: to test the depth of  the  shaman’s trance.

 This [Pawnee Deer] society teaches that all animal powers were learnt through the power of the mescal bean. Tea made from mescal beans by a definite formula is given to the candidate, and when he falls unconscious, the leader tests him by rasping down his spine with the toothed jaw of the gar-fish; if he moves or flinches in the least, he is rejected [sic] once for all [my emphasis] (Campbell) 1958

  [a] small red bean, which produced a violent spasm, and finally unconsciousness, this condition being indicated by the ability of the novice to suffer pain when the jaw of a gar-pike was drawn over his naked body (Weston La Barre) 1957: 708-711

Still unsolved though, is the meaning of the one right mandible in the ritual basket among ten left mandibles. Was it simply an error? Or could it perhaps have been a focal point of the procedure?

These early reports are fragmented, often unsure of whether the psychoactive drug used is nicotine, peyote or mescal bean–all of which Plains Indian tribes used at one time or another.  Most reports focus on ‘vision quests’. This is an individual’s search for a guardian-spirit which bestows power on the individual.  In a sense, this is the seeker inducting himself into adulthood, and the event is remembered as a major one  in life.  The novice employs a psychoactive drug to achieve a vision. Additional methods of altering the state of consciousness often accompanied drug use: fasting,  purification , isolation, and sometimes forms of body mutilation.  Once attained, the dream or vision could result in the novice gaining in power, status, knowledge or ritual privileges, but only if the novice could demonstrate in action the strength and usefulness of his vision for himself and the community. (Albers and Parker 1971).

The vision quest appears little different from shamanism, except perhaps that it is a young man seeking the vision, rather the older men who usually function as shamans.  However, no first hand observations of Pecos shamans existed: so the finer points of similarity or difference are obscure.

Vision quests have been a well organised and fundamental part of social behaviour among Plains Indian tribes in the last three or four centuries. In the early 20th century, members of the relatively new discipline of anthropology in the USA began searching and collating early accounts of vision quests for more extensive information of what was obviously an important cultural form.  Ruth Benedict, one of the earliest U.S. anthropologists  wrote from a historical diffusionist point of view in 1922 -1923. Her major contribution was to establish the geographical spread of vision quests and their connections with socio-cultural phenomena such as shamanism and puberty rites. Later anthropologists, like Lowie in 1954,  focused upon the psychological function vision quests possessed for individuals. Lowie believed the quests increased confidence for the individual in his ability to maximize mastery over the environment. Another argument posited that visions produced highly independent and inner directed individuals capable of innovative thought and action . This ties in with  Newcomb’s explaining of the origins and abrupt cessation of cave art as actions possibly ordered by visionary beings. (See earlier post ).

In 1970, when ecological issues became increasingly prominent, Patricia Albers and Seymour Parker took the discussion in a new direction in ‘The Plains Vision Experience: a Study of Power and Privilege’ in The Southwestern Journal of Anthropology.  They argued that ‘variations in the vision quest relate to variations in the social structure and ultimately to ecological variables’. While agreeing that vision quests generally did legitimize status, power and privilege, they argued that circumstances and features of the process depend upon whether a particular Plains Indian societies was predominately hunter/ gatherer, or horticultural, or a mixture of the two  strategies. 

Characteristics of hunter-gatherers like the Comanche and Blackfoot included limited food resources, low member numbers, egalitarianism, lack of food storage facilities, and no possibility of accumulating surpluses. Status position in these groups arose (by the very nature of  hunter-gatherer life-style) from achievement and personal characteristics. Consequently status achievement were open to all males. In these circumstances, assert the authors, personal and private drug-induced visions were of great importance They could not be alienated from the individual or transferred through sale or inheritance, and they legitimized personal abilities and achievement.

In a few Plains Indian societies which were predominately horticultural, the vision quest had a different character. These groups possessed relatively large populations, formal leadership, stable food supplies, and social structures with co-operative and property-owning groups.  Not surprisingly, hereditary perogatives and wealth were important. Vision quests did not disappear, but only special standardized visions found acceptability, and only certain individuals could experience them.  In the Omaha tribe, for example membership in the powerful Buffalo Society required a standardized vision. Devices existed which created a particular ‘set’ of associations surrounding the consumption of mescal bean. Only members of wealthy families became exposed to this ‘set’ of associations. This helped ensure the ‘right’ candidates received the politically correct vision.

Use of mescal bean faded among Plains Indians and other group following the arrival of Europeans, in a similar way as it had earlier with people of the Lower Pecos. That is, the consumers vanished; lost again to ethnic cleansing.  As the United States Government forced more and more of the indigenous population onto reservations often far from their homelands, it became increasingly difficult for Plains Indian groups to obtain mescal bean. Finally mescal bean use ceased, and people from some of the groups who formerly consumed mescal bean, turned instead to using peyote (Lophophora williamsii ) in a religious setting.


In conclusion, I hoped by studying mescal bean in addition to pituri I might be able to highlight missing possibilities: what was done or not  done by one or other of the two drug-using societies. Or conversely, what might—must—have taken place in each society yet went unrecorded by white observers.  What made this assessment possible was as the contextual parallels between the Pecos River people and pituri-using Australian Aborigines.To recapitulate, both groups were desert-dwelling,  hunter-gatherers with sparse and isolated populations. For both, their socially-sanctioned drug use pre-dated European settlement by thousands of years. Both socially sanctioned drugs were toxic and in both communities, (but for different reasons) European contact terminated consumption of their drug. 

I am not claiming here that mescal bean and pituri accounts could or should reveal similarities in the ways the host countries used the two drug, or culturally envisionaged them; or controlled their use; or traded and distributed the two drugs. Not at all. Even with similarities between them, separate cultures display many differences. My point is the existence of so many contextual parallels identifies the potentials available for drug–using prehistoric, desert-based, hunter-gatherers.   When these potentials appear unexploited,  is it because the data was not picked up?

Details of pituri production and trading are ample, even over half a million square kilometres of desert land; thanks to the inquisitive doctor, mounted policeman, store keeper and others. But other than Cabeza de Vaca’s brief account, nothing remains of a 12 000 history of  producing or harvesting or distributing mescal bean. This is true even for the Plains Indian period when concrete facts were probably still accessible to researchers. This is a pity. The seminal concept of Stone Age Economics by Marshall Sahlins was that, universally, stone age trade differed from that of historic periods.  Sahlins gave two exceptions: one was Aboriginal trading in the psychoactive substance, pituri. This, claimed Sahlins, was more like free-market auctions. Sahlins apparently did not examine other prehistoric drug trade. Consequently it is unknown if the pituri pattern of trading was an aberration or a foreshadowing of the social, political economic changes drug trading brings to industrial societies today.

A record of pharmacognosy activity marks pituri history. Again this is largely absent in the mescal bean account–even in its modern  anthropological context of vision quests. The cultural determinist perspective of those times believed drugs had no effect  human biology unless the users’ culture taught that it did. So it is not suprising that no anthropologists linked mescal bean to the altered state of consciousness in which the vision is situated  However, the anthropology research also creates the idea  that the Plains Indians themselves did not link mescal bean use to visions to any significant degree. I think the latter is unlkely. Soon after the ancient population settled on the Lower Pecos River, they had experimented with their local environment to find a drug which would profoundly alter consciousness (Weston La Barre and Richard Evens Schultes). Given the toxicity of mescal bean, many deaths probably occurred during this early period. This must have ensured a strong learning curve and search for moderating actions or antitodes to mescal bean. The poisonous Ungnadia specio, found in both the ritual basket and throughout the archaeological sites may have acted as an antitode to the toxic bean rather than being a dart (arrow) poison as someone suggested.

But in other fields mescal bean activity bequeths a greater horde of riches than do the reports on pituri. Consider the evidence: the existence of drug-related shamanism in the Siberian homeland from which people had migrated to Pecos River; the 12 000-10 000 years presence of mescal bean presence in the archaeological excavations in Pecos;  the cave paintings widely believed to represent shaman-assisted hunting; and the fact that after invadors wiped out Pecos River people, Plains Indians observers record mescal- bean based visions and the role thay played in the achievement of authority and status; all these establish that drug use effected social, religious, and political contexts for millenia.  Although mescal bean was very toxic and probably caused some deaths, for a change this is drugs as ‘the good guys’ , their use helping populations to achieve life-enriching goals.