Ancient Europeans used hallucinogenic plants in ritual ceremonies, analysis of human hair reveals

A recent paper published in Scientific Reports reveals that an analysis of human hair strands from a burial site in Menorca, Spain, provides direct evidence that ancient human civilizations in Europe used hallucinogenic drugs derived from plants. The strands of hair were from individuals buried in a chamber at the Es Càrritx cave, which was used as a funeral space approximately 3,600 years ago and until around 2,800 years ago.

Detail of a hair strand. Credit: ASOME-Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.
Wooden bowl and spoon found in the hoard with the human hair containers. Credit: Peter Witte, ASOME-Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.
Wooden comb found in the hoard with the human hair containers. Credit: Peter Witte, ASOME-Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Although previous evidence of prehistoric drug use in Europe has been based on indirect evidence, such as the detection of opium alkaloids in Bronze Age containers and the finding of remains of drug plants in ritualistic contexts, this new research offers the first direct evidence of ancient drug use in Europe. The authors of the study used Ultra-High Performance Liquid Chromatography and High Resolution Mass Spectroscopy to test for the presence of alkaloids such as atropine, scopolamine, and ephedrine in the hair samples.

Atropine and scopolamine, which are naturally found in the nightshade plant family, can induce delirium, altered sensory perception, and hallucinations. Ephedrine, on the other hand, is a stimulant derived from certain species of shrubs and pines, which can increase alertness, excitement, and physical activity. The authors detected the presence of scopolamine, ephedrine, and atropine in three replicated hair samples.

The authors speculate that the individuals consumed some nightshade plants, such as mandrake, henbane, or thorn apple, and joint pine as part of ritual ceremonies performed by a shaman. The wooden and horn containers that held the dyed red hair strands were decorated with concentric circles that may have depicted eyes, which could be a metaphor for inner vision related to a drug-induced altered state of consciousness. The authors suggest that the wooden containers were sealed in the cave chamber due to cultural changes around 2,800 years ago in order to preserve these ancient traditions.

Source: Nature Publishing Group

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