If archaeologists and historians have long suspected the inhabitants of Bronze Age Europe to have consumed psychoactive substances, they now have irrefutable scientific evidence.
And it’s all thanks to several tiny strands of human hair found impeccably preserved at a 3,000-year-old burial site in Spain. The researchers found that this hair contained traces of three different alkaloid substances known to cause altered states of consciousness.
“It’s amazing,” said Rafael Mico, professor of archaeological prehistory at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. “This is the first direct evidence in Europe of the consumption [de drogues psychédéliques]. »
Mico is co-author of a new study describing these findings, which was published this month in the journal Scientific Reports.
A new analysis of a decades-old discovery
According to Mico, this is a discovery that has been made for decades. It all started in the mid-1990s, with the discovery of a cave in Menorca, an island off the east coast of Spain. The cave, called Es Càrritx, contained the remains of around 200 people from the Bronze Age.
According to Mico, some of these people had their hair dyed red. Locks of hair were found inside decorated tubular boxes made of wood and antlers. The archaeological finds inside the cave were exceptionally well preserved, as the cave opening had long since been closed by collapsed rubble.
“It’s a miracle to have found these strands of hair thanks to very, very particular conditions,” Mico said.
Initial analyzes of these hair samples didn’t tell the researchers much, according to Mico. But over time, the science got better, so they tried again. This time, they found evidence for the existence of three compounds that can be produced from native plants: the hallucinogens atropine and scopolamine, and the stimulant ephedrine.
Plants like mandrake (Mandragora autumnalis), henbane (Hyoscyamus albus), Datura and Ephedra are the likely sources of these different substances.
All three compounds are used in modern medicine for a wide variety of purposes, including atropine to combat nerve poisoning, scopolamine to treat motion sickness, and ephedrine to lower blood pressure during anesthesia. .
Analysis suggests that the person to whom the hair belonged would have consumed these psychoactive compounds regularly for at least a year before his death.
This isn’t the first time that Bronze Age peoples of what is now Europe have been found to use drugs, much like the people of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. But earlier research was more circumstantial – for example, archaeological finds of what appeared to be smoking pipes.
“That’s why it’s important to keep the archaeological remains in good condition so that they can be analyzed in the future,” Mico said.
Why were they taking drugs?
It’s impossible to know for sure how these ancient cultures used mind-altering drugs, but Mico says the reason must have been very different from how we consume psychedelics today.
“In our society, we take drugs probably to escape, to forget disgusting or embarrassing situations. But we believe that in the past, in Menorca, drugs were only used by certain individuals to fulfill this specific social role (….)”, he said. “Our hypothesis is that these people were some sort of shaman. »
These shamans, according to Mico, would have acted as a kind of “intermediary” between real and everyday life and “another perception, another state of mind”.