Ancient Hair Reveals Traces of Hallucinogenic Drugs Taken 3,600 Years Ago

Europeans from the Bronze Age were tuning in and dropping out on hallucinogenic substances long before the counter-culture movement of the 1960s.

Although archaeologists have long suspected it, recent hair analysis from a 3,600-year-old burial site in Spain offers the first concrete proof that people in ancient Europe used drugs.

Remains of psychotropic plants, preparation materials, and artistic representations have all raised the possibility that European societies formerly sought out altered states of consciousness. discovering the chemicals themselves in samples of biological tissue, like hair, is far more significant than discovering evidence of them.

Only hair often does not last as long as bones and teeth. Fortunately, samples that had been particularly well preserved as part of a burial ceremony were discovered by researchers from the University of Valladolid, the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and the University of Chile.

Using sophisticated particle processing methods to analyze the hair, the researchers found significant amounts of atropine and scopolamine, two drugs that can both cause hallucinations and altered sensory perception. Ephedrine, a stimulant that is known to raise enthusiasm and alertness, was also found to be present.

The researchers write in their peer-reviewed study, "The results furnish direct evidence of the consumption of plant drugs and, more intriguingly, they reveal the use of multiple psychoactive species."

The nightshade plants joint pine (Ephedra fragilis), thorn apple (Datura stramonium), henbane (Hyoscyamus albus), and mandrake (Mandragora autumnalis) are the most plausible suppliers of the medications, according to the researchers. These plants were probably present in the vicinity of the burial site and were also present at other comparable sites.

The medications were likely given by a shaman, an ancient practitioner of medicine and religion who would have substantial knowledge in the production and distribution of the plant materials, according to the researchers, who believe the drugs may have been delivered as part of some sort of ceremony.

The handling, use, and applications of the alkaloids detected in the hair constituted highly specialized expertise, the researchers wrote, given their potential toxicity.

This information was generally held by shamans because they could regulate the negative effects of the plant-based medications through an ecstasy that permitted divination or diagnosis.

The incredibly uncommon hair samples were discovered in Menorca's Es Càrritx cave. Despite the fact that over 200 persons were interred here, only a small number of hair samples were collected. The hair was dyed red as part of the burial ceremony and was deposited in unique containers near the back of the cave chamber, but it is unclear why.

The containers also have an intriguing aspect. They are made of wood and antler, and their concentric rings, which may have been painted to look like eyes, may be a sign that the hallucinogens they contain might affect someone's eyesight or awareness. Other sites with comparable designs have been discovered.

According to the study team, one of the reasons the hair samples were stashed away may have been to protect regional customs after a cultural transition that appears to have happened about the same period. A third of a millennium later, such customs have indeed been rediscovered.

The researchers state that their findings "confirm the use of various alkaloid-bearing plants by local communities of this Western Mediterranean island by the beginning of the first millennium BCE."

The research has been published in Scientific Reports.