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The Origin of Entheogens: An Exploration of Hallucinogen Use Across History

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Table of Contents
Ancestral Use of Psychedelics in Prehistory
The Breadth of Tribal Shamanism in the Americas
Entheogenic Shamanism in Eurasia, Africa, and Australia
Modern Historical Significance: Boundaries Dissolved

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Chemical Collective or any associated parties.

Ancestral Use of Psychedelics in Prehistory

Today, many individuals are cast into the pursuit of psychedelic awareness with little knowledge of the history, or more precisely, the prehistory of psychedelic compounds. Yet, the freedom we face on the last frontier of our minds is not new or even a few decades old. For millennia, humans have ingested psychedelic compounds for a variety of purposes.

The earliest recorded evidence for human consumption of a psychedelic molecule is somewhere between 7,000 and 9,000 years old. This can be found in a cave in Algeria, where a mural depicts what can only be described as a “bee-faced mushroom shaman.” The mushroom Psilocybe Mairei is local to this region and is theorized to be depicted in the mural pictured above. A similar cave mural in Spain that is 6,000 years old is thought to represent Psilocybe Hispanica, which is native to Spain.

In the Rio Grande in Texas, researchers have discovered evidence of ancient peyote (mescaline) used by the native Americans of the region, dating back to 3,700 BC. In Peru, the mescaline-containing San Pedro cactus has been used and held sacred by the indigenous peoples for over 3,000 years. There is a statue of a god holding the sacred cactus in northern Peru, which dates to 1,300 BC.

In Mexico and Guatemala, mushroom stones have been discovered dated between 3,000 BC and 500 AD. These stones, which can be seen above, indicate the use of psilocybin mushrooms by the region’s people during this time.

In 2019, a 1000-year-old shaman’s pouch was discovered in Bolivia, containing extracted DMT, among other psychedelics. Dennis McKenna addresses the fact that there isn’t data concerning how far back DMT-containing ayahuasca use in this region dates. Many who live in the Amazon rainforest believe that the ceremonial use of ayahuasca is thousands upon thousands of years old. [1]

The Breadth of Tribal Shamanism in the Americas

Many pre-Colombian Mesoamerican cultures used all kinds of psychoactive plants and fungi for magical, therapeutic, and religious purposes. “The Maya drank balché (a mixture of honey and extracts of Lonchocarpus) in group ceremonies to achieve intoxication. Ritual enemas and other psychoactive substances were also used to induce states of trance. Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, and Aztec used peyote, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and the seeds of ololiuhqui (Turbina corymbosa), which contain mescaline, psilocybin, and lysergic acid amide, respectively. The skin of the toad Bufo contains bufotoxins with hallucinogenic properties and was used since the Olmec period. Jimson weed (Datura stramonium), wild tobacco (Nicotiana rustica), water lily (Nymphaea ampla), and Salvia divinorum were used for their psychoactive effects. Mushroom stones dating from 3000 BC have been found in ritual contexts in Mesoamerica. Archaeological evidence of peyote use dates back to over 5000 years. Several chroniclers, mainly Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, described their effects in the sixteenth century.” [2]

Dr. Stephan F. de Borhegyi was a Maya archaeologist who was convinced by his findings that there existed a Mayan mushroom cult that used psilocybin mushrooms for ritualistic purposes. In fact, the mushrooms, they believed, were what granted them the spiritual power to carry out their religious practices. This cult was believed to occupy the Guatemala highlands and pacific coastal area around 1,000 BC. They are believed to be responsible for the creation of the aforementioned “mushroom stones” seen above. They associated mushrooms with underworld sacrifices, calendar period endings, the decapitation and resurrection of the sun god Venus, and a transformation into the “Jaguar God” pictured below. It is crucial to note that this symbolic representation of the Jaguar God was created by the Olmecs, who shared this belief with the Mayan mushroom cult. [3]

As for the Native American tribes that later followed the Mesoamerican cultures such as the Aztec, Maya, and Olmec, psychedelic use continued to flourish among them. 

When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1500s, they took detailed notes on the use of peyote, morning glory seeds, and psilocybin mushrooms by the native Americans. They violently punished, even murdered native Americans for their tribal use of peyote and mushrooms, seeing it as demonic and anti-Christianity. 

The Comanche and Kiowa Indian tribes historically brought peyote use to the land now known as the U.S. from the tribes of Mexico, and today, peyote use is legal within the Native American Church of the United States. This church was founded by Comanche Chief Quannah Parker, who helped bring the mescaline-containing peyote cactus to North America. Mescaline has been used for more than 9,000 years by the Native American tribes. [4]

Entheogenic Shamanism in Eurasia, Africa, and Australia

From a psychedelic perspective, Egypt is the crown jewel on the north-African subcontinent. There is evidence that DMT was consumed by several Egyptian societies in multiple forms. It was smoked, as well as brewed into the Egyptian’s own version of ayahuasca. This is probably due to the fact that Egypt has an unusually high number of local plants that contain high concentrations of DMT. The Egyptians used all of these plants for the medicinal, religious, or mind-expanding properties of the chemicals they contain: Ashwagandha, Blue Lotus Flower, Common Reed, Egyptian Acacia, Henbane, Opium Poppies, and Yohimbe. [5] Svetla Balabanova and two of her colleagues reported in 1992 on the findings of cocaine, hashish, and nicotine on Egyptian mummies. [3]

As for psychedelic use in sub-Saharan Africa, it has been theorized that the large prehistoric evolutionary leap that occurred between Homo erectus and Homo sapiens was directly caused by their intake of psilocybin-containing mushrooms on the African plain. This idea is called Stoned Ape Theory and was first postulated by Terence McKenna. [6(TMFE)]

In Ancient Greece and Minoa, there was a clear association between Opium poppies and the sacred oracles. They crafted several representations of the divine link between the poppies and what was held as religious or sacred in Ancient Greece and Minoa as seen above. The Opium poppies were used for both their medicinal and trance-inducing properties in Ancient Greece. [3]

The Ancient Greek Eleusinian Mysteries were held each year at Eleusis, 14 miles northwest of Athens. Those initiated were made to keep the secrets of the mysteries by the threat of death, so we have no written record of what actually occurred at the rituals. However, it is known that those who participated no longer feared death afterward, and therefore, many have postulated that the Eleusinian mysteries involved the consumption of a psychedelic compound. Speculation over the exact substance has led many to conclude that the LSD-related ergot vine, DMT-containing acacia, or even psilocybin mushrooms could have been used, but the complete lack of written evidence leaves this open to uncertainty. Plato was initiated and had this to say: “Our mysteries had a very real meaning: he that has been purified and initiated shall dwell with the gods.” [7]

Prehistoric Asia was rife with knowledge of the cultivation and use of the various psychoactive plants that inhabit the Asian subcontinent. Evidence of marijuana consumption dates back over 2,700 years in this region and over 7,000 years in nearby Russia. Poppies and ephedra have been discovered together in this region, noting that shamans used the ephedra to prevent a loss of consciousness due to the overwhelming strength of the opium poppies that grew wild. [3]

Modern Historical Significance: Boundaries Dissolved

To offer a conclusion to what has been learned about the prehistory we share in the psychedelic experience, we must look to the present. Today, we have never been more able as a species or as a society to access the plants and compounds needed to share in the psychedelic experience. The movement grows each day as more people lose faith in the prescribed culture and philosophy of living that is handed out by the powers of the world. We now know that the potential of the psychedelic experience is worth exploring for all of the benefits that it may offer. Hopefully, someday soon, we can unify as a species and admit collectively that the psychological benefits of these plants and substances have always been present, and the governmental bodies at work can see this as well. I truly believe that the global legalization of psychedelics would change the world for the better, even in ways that the prohibitionist governments would understand as beneficial. 

A. Mayhugh | Community Blogger at Chemical Collective

A. Mayhugh is one of our community bloggers here at Chemical Collective. If you’re interested in joining our blogging team and getting paid to write about subjects you’re passionate about, please reach out to Matt via email at matt@chemical-collective.com

4 Comments

  1. The Stoned Ape hypothesis may not even be deserving of the term ‘hypothesis’. There’s just not enough data behind it for it to be taken seriously by anyone. On the other hand, the relationship between psychedelics and our civilisation is still a mystery.

  2. What stood out for me the most is that Plato, who is widely dubbed as the father of western philosophy, also had a brush with psychedelics. All the great civilisations seem to have had some interaction with psychedelic compounds. The fact that they are illegal is almost criminal.

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