The Need to Know

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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