A new study adds to a growing body of evidence that some ancient cultures may have used mind-altering substances for religious and ritualistic practices, rather than as a form of recreation.
"Psychoactive substances in prehistoric Europe are mainly found in tombs and ceremonial places," Elisa Guerra-Doce of the Universidad de Valladolid in Spain told The Huffington Post. "Therefore I think that their consumption is strongly connected to ritual usages in order to alter the usual state of consciousness or even to achieve a trance state."
"The opium poppy offers a good example," she continued. "The association of opium poppies [with] female deities in the Eastern Mediterranean during the Late Bronze Age strongly supports the ritual character of this species."
Guerra-Doce is the author of a study published in a recent issue of the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory that analyzes drug and alcohol use "in prehistoric Eurasia."
Among other discoveries, bits of opium poppy have been found in the teeth of a male adult at a Neolithic site in Spain, and charred cannabis seeds were found in bowls at an archaeological site in Romania, the study says. Guerra-Doce also noted that traces of ephedra, ergot and some varieties of nightshade, all of which can be rendered to produce types of recreational substances, have been found at archaeological sites throughout Europe. And while researchers have uncovered no direct evidence of hallucinogenic mushrooms, their ritual use appears to be depicted in "abstract designs" found in the Italian Alps.
"Prehistoric societies probably used many other psychoactive plants, but we lack direct evidence," Guerra-Doce said.
Many of the various substances were uncovered in tombs of high-status individuals or in restricted ceremonial locations, which suggests that the substances were only accessible to a privileged class, according to Guerra-Doce. However, many psychoactive plants, such as cannabis or psilocybin mushrooms, grow in the wild, making them difficult to control. So how did early humans manage to keep the substances from being used outside of sacred rites?
"I think that a taboo might have been imposed on their use, as indicated by the common names of some of these plants, which point to harmful effects, to evil spirits, in order to scare anyone from using them," Guerra-Doce said.
One of the earliest documented examples suggestive of mind-altering substance use by early hominids was found at Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal burial site from roughly 60,000 B.C. in what is now northern Iraq. At the site, which Science magazine describes as a "flower burial," researchers found evidence of a number of plants known for their medicinal use, suggesting that the grave may have been the final resting place of an ancient shaman. However, not everyone subscribes to this theory: other scientists have argued that these plants could have been introduced to the cave by animals at a later time.
As for alcohol use in early European societies, analysis of residues found in various artifacts suggests that people thousands of years ago were consuming mead, grogs, fruit wines and beer made of wheat and barley, often in ceremonial contexts, according to Guerra-Doce's report.
"In some cases, the capacity of the vessels indicates that the quantity of alcohol was high," Guerra-Doce told HuffPost. "One of the most impressive examples comes from the Hallstatt princely wagon burial of a 40-year-old male, dated to around 530 B.C., at Hochdorf, near Stuttgart, where an enormous bronze cauldron imported from Greece was deposited in the grave chamber containing 350 liters of mead."
The earliest alcoholic drink to have been chemically documented was found in neolithic China and dates back about 9,000 years. Using molecular archeology, Dr. Patrick McGovern, scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, found pottery jars that once contained a mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey and wild grapes or hawthorn tree fruit.
"Some animals -- and many primates among them -- intentionally consume over-ripe fruits in search for their mood-altering properties due to the ethanol content," said Guerra-Doce. "It seems that mammals deliberately seek mind-altering substances."