Psychoactive drugs were used in Europe during the Bronze Age, according to scientists, possibly as part of ancient rituals.
Approximately 3,000 years ago, human hair strands preserved traces of alkaloid substances that originate in plants and are known to alter perception, induce delirium, and euphoria. In Menorca, one of the Balearic Islands off the eastern coast of Spain in the Mediterranean Sea, researchers discovered the hairs and other funerary artifacts in the burial cave Es Càrritx.
Ephedrine, a stimulant, was found in the hairs after a chemical analysis. Researchers reported on Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports that analysis also revealed atropine and scopolamine, which are both psychoactive compounds that can cause disorientation, sensory disruption, and vivid hallucinations.
Drug use among people is a training known to be millennia old, in view of hints that were recently revealed in Eurasia and the Americas. However, the presence of mind-altering plants at prehistoric sites in Europe provided archaeologists with only a partial picture; Lead study author Elisa Guerra-Doce, an associate professor of prehistory at the University of Valladolid in Spain, stated, “Until now, they lacked evidence that people in ancient communities ingested the plants.”
Guerra-Doce told CNN that these new findings “are presenting the earliest evidence of drug consumption in European prehistory.”
In 1995, Es Càrritx was discovered; The cavern is made up of seven chambers and has an entrance that is approximately 25 meters (82 feet) from the top of a cliff. It served as a burial ground for more than 200 adults and children, both male and female, from 1400 BC to 800 BC.
Nonetheless, a few cadavers got exceptional treatment. Their hair was carefully combed, cut, and then sealed inside antler or wood tubes after they were brought to the funeral cave. The hair was dyed red. At other internment locales where this custom was played out, these containers were put close to the bodies. According to the study’s authors, 10 of these containers and other funerary artifacts were hidden in another room in Es Càrritx.
The researchers analyzed the reddish hair strands in the tubes by chemically separating the hair’s components and then identifying molecules by the mass of their ions. The strands could be up to 5.1 inches (13 centimeters) long. Devil’s snare (Datura stramonium), white henbane (Hyoscyamus albus), mandrake (Mandragora automnalis), and joint pine (Ephedra fragilis) are all Menorcan plants that produce the compounds they found.
Dagmara Socha, a researcher at the Center for Andean Studies at the University of Warsaw in Poland, claims that visions brought on by taking scopolamine and atropine can be “violent and unpleasant.” Socha, who was not involved in the study, studies the ancient use of mind-altering substances and recently reported the discovery of psychoactive substances in an ancient Peruvian trophy head of a Nazca child who had been sacrificed.
According to an email that Socha sent to CNN, the nightshade plants Datura and Brugmansia contain scopolamine and atropine, both of which were utilized in South America prior to the arrival of the Spanish.
For instance, the Chibcha public, a Native gathering based on what is presently Colombia, “involved a mixture of Brugmansia for slaves and spouses of dead rulers to dull their faculties while they were covered alive during the memorial service function,” Socha said.
Disobedient children were disciplined in the Amazonian Indigenous Shuar communities by drinking a juice called maikua made from Brugmansia flowers. During the following daze, unruly adolescents would cooperative with their predecessors and learn regard for their seniors, Socha said.
However, drug use in prehistoric times may have been enjoyable. She went on to say that the Mayans and Aztecs of Mesoamerica used Datura stramonium as an aphrodisiac.
Guerra-Doce stated that it is unlikely that the compounds were introduced by modern contamination of the site because the tubes containing the hair in Menorca’s Es Càrritx cave were discovered in a sealed chamber that had not been opened since 800 BC. Instead, after ingestion, the chemicals were absorbed by the hair. Based on analysis along the length of the strands, drug use occurred for nearly a year prior to death.
The findings from Es Càrritx may also shed light on how prehistoric European societies may have defined certain roles through the use of ritual drugs. Guerra-Doce said that because only a small number of people in the burial chamber had their hair dyed, cut, and preserved, they might have had special status because they used psychoactive plants.
She stated, “We suggest that maybe certain people, religious specialists, controlled their use of these drugs.” All of this evidence suggested that perhaps some people deserved this hair treatment, and that those people were the ones who took the drugs.
She added, however, that conclusion is only a hypothesis for the time being.
Guerra-Doce stated, “We would have to carry out more analysis on different individuals in order to prove it.”