The oldest archeological data evidencing the relationship of Homo sapiens with
psychoactive plants: A worldwide overview
Ethnobotanist, Independent Researcher, Bologna, Italy
(Received: January 7, 2019; accepted: February 21, 2019)
Modern sophisticated archeometric instruments are increasingly capable of detecting the presence of psychoactive
plant sources in archeological contexts, testifying the antiquity of humanity’s search for altered states of conscious-
ness. The purpose of this article is to provide a general picture of these ﬁndings, covering the main psychoactive plant
sources of the world, and identifying the most ancient dates so far evidenced by archeology. This review is based on
the archeological literature identifying the presence of psychoactive plant sources, relying on original research
documents. The research produced two main results: (a) a systematization of the types of archeological evidence that
testify the relationship between Homo sapiens and these psychoactive sources, subdivided into direct evidence
(i.e., material ﬁndings, chemical, and genetic) and indirect evidence (i.e., anthropophysical, iconographic, literary,
and paraphernalia); and (b) producing a list of the earliest known dates of the relationship of H. sapiens with the main
psychoactive plant sources. There appears to be a general diffusion of the use of plant drugs from at least the Neolithic
period (for the Old World) and the pre-Formative period (for the Americas). These dates should not to be understood
as the ﬁrst use of these materials, instead they refer to the oldest dates currently determined by either direct or indirect
archeological evidence. Several of these dates are likely to be modiﬁed back in time by future excavations and ﬁnds.
Keywords: archeology, archeobotany, psychoactive plants, oldest ﬁnd
The hypothesis that the human search for altered states of
consciousness through the intake of psychoactive plant
sources has very ancient roots is repeatedly conﬁrmed by
archeological ﬁnds. The present review focuses on the most
ancient dates so far identiﬁed by archeological research on
the relationship of humans with the main psychoactive plant
sources –listed in Table 1. Before this, some methodologi-
cal and systematical aspects are discussed.
The initial problem that arises whenever remains of a
plant (whether psychoactive or not) are found within an
archeological context concerns whether or not they were
introduced by humans. For this reason, a distinction
between anthropic and environmental plant remains is
usually taken into consideration, assigning them two differ-
ent terms; however, there is no unanimous agreement
among scholars about the nomenclature. Some scholars call
the environmental ﬁnds paleobotanical, and the anthropic
ﬁnds archeobotanical, starting from the assumption that
archeology deals with everything related to humans and the
anthropic environment (Day, 2013). Other scholars consider
the terms archeobotanical and paleoethnobotanical to be
synonymous, both associated with human activity, whereas
yet other scholars consider them distinct, indicating, respec-
tively, the environmental and the anthropic ﬁndings. Still
others exclusively employ the term archeoethnobotanical to
indicate the agricultural activity of ancient humans (for a
discussion of these terms, see A-Magid, 2004). More
generally, the term paleoethnobotany seems to be used
mainly in New World archeology, whereas archeobotany
is commonly used in Old World archeology, with mostly
interchangeable meanings (VanDerwaker et al., 2016,
p. 126). In Mediterranean archeology, the distinction
between archeobotanical and archeothnobotanical ﬁnds is
frequently adopted, here giving emphasis to the preﬁx
ethno- to denote the causal relationship with anthropic
activities (Marguerie, 1992, p. 46).
Once the anthropic causality of the plant ﬁnd has been
established, a second type of problem concerns the identiﬁ-
cation of the purpose of use of the plant, especially when it
concerns remains of psychoactive plants. These plants have
often been used, and continue to be used, not only to achieve
altered states of consciousness, but also for medicinal,
edible, manufacturing or utilitarian purposes, and it is not
always possible to determine the precise purpose of use in
the archeological contexts.
The archeological evidence attesting utilization of
psychoactive plants can be classiﬁed into the two general
groups of direct evidence and indirect evidence.
The direct evidence concerns:
Material ﬁnds: these occur when macroscopic or micro-
scopic (pollen, phytoliths, lipids, etc.) botanical remains
* Corresponding address: Giorgio Samorini; Ethnobotanist,
Independent Researcher, Via del Porto 42, 40122 Bologna, Italy;
This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License,
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium for non-commercial purposes, provided the original author and
source are credited, a link to the CC License is provided, and changes –if any –are indicated.
© 2019 The Author(s)
ORIGINAL ARTICLE Journal of Psychedelic Studies
are revealed in archeological excavations associated with
Chemical evidence: this concerns the identiﬁcation of the
active ingredients of plants in human organic tissues
(hair, bones, etc.) or in material ﬁnds such as ceramics,
mortars, and pestles. In addition to the active ingredients,
their metabolites may also be found in organic tissues.
This is the case with benzoylecgonine, a cocaine
metabolite, or cocaethylene, a metabolite that the human
body creates only in a context of simultaneous cocaine
and alcohol intake; both compounds have been detected
in the hair of South American mummies (Wilson et al.,
2013). Chemical evidence also comprises the presence of
speciﬁc marker compounds on the internal surface of
liquid containers, such as tartaric acid, malvidin, and
syringic acid attesting the original presence of grape wine
(Barnard, Dooley, Areshian, Gasparyan, & Faull, 2010),
or oxalic acid for barley beer (Michel, McGovern, &
Badler, 1993); and
Genetic evidence: this is based on genetic studies of the
plant populations of different geographical areas, with
the aim of identifying the original areas of their anthropic
diffusion; this technique has been used, for example, in
the identiﬁcation of the area of origin of cocoa tree
cultivation (Matamayor et al., 2002), and in the ascer-
tainment of a multilocation origin of grapevine domesti-
cation (Arroyo-García et al., 2006).
The indirect evidence concerns:
Anthropophysical evidence: this is based on the identiﬁ-
cation of speciﬁc transformations or malformations in the
human remains that are formed as a result of the assiduous
use of certain psychoactive sources. This is the case of
certain mandibular and dental malformations among
South American coca-leaf consumers (Indriati & Buikstra,
2001), or the blackish coloring in the teeth of betel
masticators (Oxhenam, Cornelia, Cuon, & Thuy, 2002);
Paraphernalia: this refers to the instruments used for
consumption of psychoactive sources, and are
Table 1. Oldest evidence of anthropic psychoactive plant use
Beer (from Hordeum spp.)
11000 BC (Israel)
8200 BC (Japan)
Betel (Areca catechu)
7000 BC (Thailand)
Henbane (Hyoscyamus spp.)
6000 BC (Egypt)
Waterlilies (Nymphaea spp.)
6000 BC (Egypt)
6000 BC (Sahara)
Wine (from Vitis vinifera)
5800 BC (Georgia)
Opium poppy (Papaver somniferum)
5600 BC (Italy)
Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna)
4500 BC (Romania)
4200 BC (Spain)
Harmel (Peganum harmala)
4000 BC (Caucasus and Egypt)
Tea (Camellia sinensis)
3500 BC (Zhejiang, China)
Lettuce (Lactuca serriola)
2500 BC (Egypt)
Cider (from Pyrus sp.)
2500 BC (Spain)
2000 BC (China)
2000 BC (South Africa)
Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium)
1700 BC (Andorra)
Fly-agaric (Amanita muscaria)
1500 BC (Asia)
Mandrake (Mandragora spp.)
1400 BC (Egypt)
Ergot (Claviceps spp.)
300 BC (Spain)
Kava (Piper methysticum)
850 AD (Oceania)
San Pedro (Trichocereus spp.)
8600 BC (Peru)
Mescalbean (Sophora secundiﬂora)
8440 BC (Texas)
Coca (Erythroxylum spp.)
6000 BC (Peru)
Peyote (Lophophora williamsii)
3200 BC (Texas)
Cebil (Anadenanthera spp.)
2100 BC (Argentina)
Cocoa (Theobroma cacao)
1900 BC (Mexico)
Tobacco (Nicotiana spp.)
1500 BC (North America)
Psilocybian mushrooms and/or ﬂy-agaric
1000 BC (Guatemala)
Chicha (from Zea maydis)
800 BC (Bolivia)
Mate (Ilex paraguariensis)
650 BC (Argentina)
Jimsonweed (D. stramonium) 300 AD (Chile)
Guayusa (Ilex guayusa)
375 AD (Bolivia)
Ololiuhqui (Turbina corymbosa)
600 AD (Mexico)
800 AD (Texas)
Black drink (Ilex vomitoria)
1050 AD (IL, USA)
2|Journal of Psychedelic Studies
categorized as paraphernalia used in processing (pestles,
mortars, presses, vats, etc.), conservation (dolia, etc.),
transport (amphorae, etc.), and intake (pipes, snuff-trays,
Iconographic evidence: this concerns images of psycho-
active plants, or of contexts of their use, as reported in
ancient art. This type of documentation is frequently
uncertain, given that the iconography of ancient plants
and fungi is not generally reported with an abundance of
morphological details that can safely allow the identiﬁ-
cation of the botanical species; and
Literary evidence: this concerns the terminology associ-
ated with use of psychoactive sources that can be identi-
ﬁed in the ancient hieroglyphic, and cuneiform writings.
Regarding this type of documentation, and similarly to
iconographic sources, there are numerous uncertainties.
Some plant species that represent direct or indirect
sources of psychoactives did not exist in nature, and were
created by Homo sapiens through diligent cultivation and
selection starting from wild species. The best known cases
are opium poppy, wine vine, coca, and kava (Samorini,
In Table 1, the data have been divided in Old and New
World sources, and have been presented in chronological
order, indicating for each plant source the country with the
oldest ﬁnds so far registered. The oldest date, whether for
direct or indirect evidence, is presented, without reference to
the more recent dates for the other form of evidence or more
recent ﬁnds in other regions.
It should be recognized that these archeological ﬁnds do
not always deﬁnitively establish that they reﬂect use as
entheogens. Nonetheless, most of these evidence can be
considered as indicative of entheogenic uses in the past
because their discovery is generally in association with
grave goods, items that were deliberately placed with
deceased persons, or ceremonial sites that have apparent
religious functions. The placement of plant material as
grave goods, as is the case with burial itself, attests to a
supernatural orientation and attitude. Similar arguments
apply to ﬁnds within ceremonial structures; the default
hypothesis for psychoactive plants in ceremonial structures
is that they were involved in producing entheogenic
experiences. These relationships justify treating the broad
range of data involving deliberate interment of psychoac-
tive plant substances as indicating that they were related
to supernatural issues and consequently entheogenic
The following sections of the paper provide a succinct
description of the oldest archeological data for each plant
source (Table 1), grouped by geographical area (Old
and New World) and following a mixed layout between
kind and geographical distribution of the psychoactive
OLD WORLD EVIDENCE
When it comes to the origin of the human relationship with
alcohol, it is worth noting to mention the “drunken monkey
hypothesis,”proposed by Dudley (2004) and based on the
observation that primates have been in contact with this drug
since time immemorial, as it occurs naturally in fermenting
fruits, meaning this association long precedes the origin of
the human species. Following this, it can also be argued that
alcophilia among humans is likely rooted deep in the
evolutionary history of primates; the scent of alcohol indi-
cates sources of desirable ripened fruit.
Throughout the world, people have learned to make
alcoholic fermented beverages from the most disparate plant
sources. In Eurasia, the best known of these products is
grape wine, while ancient Mexican populations learned to
get an alcoholic beverage –pulque –from the agave’s sap.
Another very ancient alcoholic product is mead, obtained by
combining honey with water. With numerous types of fruit,
even those found in the wild, it is possible to process
fermented alcoholic brews, which are designated as ciders.
Wine, mead, and ciders are all leavened fermented
beverages. Humans acquired a second way of producing
alcoholic brews using cereals, and these are classiﬁed as
malted fermented beverages, giving rise to those
drinks known as beers, and which were historically and
technologically preceded by saliva-fermented drinks (Lima
The widespread hypothesis that cereal beers originated
subsequent to the achievement of cereal cultivation is
increasingly rejected by scholars, who are moving toward
a model of opposite technological evolution, that is, the
acquisition of the production techniques of alcoholic drinks
was the driving force of cereal production, which was only
later adopted and perfected for the use of cereals as a food
source. This would have occurred both in the context of the
Eurasian beers (Joffe et al., 1998) and in the case of the
Amerindian chicha made from corn (Smalley & Blake,
The oldest cereal beer appears to have been dated to
13,000 years ago, and its processing was established at
Mount Carmel (Israel), in the Natuﬁan site of the Raqefet
Cave. The analysis of the starch granules found on the
internal surfaces of some mortars revealed morphological
malformations typical of those formed during the stages of
brewing (germination, crushing, and enzymatic hydrolysis;
Liu et al., 2018). The production of another ancient beer,
dated to the 7th millennium BC, has been identiﬁed in China
(Jiahu, Henan); the drink consisted of rice, honey, and a fruit
(McGovern et al., 2004).
Regarding Mesopotamia, chemical analyses have
outlined the preparation of barley beer at the Godin Tepe
site (Zagros Mountains, Iran), at a level corresponding to the
Late Uruk (3500–2900 BC; Michel et al., 1993). This direct
conﬁrmation of the existence of an ancient Mesopotamian
beer would agree with the extensive evidence of beer in both
administrative and mythological texts of proto-cuneiform
writings, dated to 3200–3000 BC. The cuneiform texts show
the production of at least nine different types of beer
(Damerow, 2012, p. 4).
In Egypt, the pre-Dynastic brewery of Hierakonpolis
was able to produce 1,100 L of beer a day. In addition,
Journal of Psychedelic Studies |3
The oldest archeological data evidencing the relationship of Homo sapiens with psychoactive plants
the excavations at Abydos, Mahasna, Badari, Ballas, and
other pre-Dynastic sites have outlined elements that show the
preparation of beer was a widespread practice in the phases
of Naqada I–III of the 4th millennium BC (Geller, 1993).
For Europe, the presence of calcium oxalate and barley
phytoliths has been evidenced in Neolithic ceramics and
millstones dated to 3800–3500 BC found in the Can
Sadurní cave (Barcelona, Spain; Blasco, Edo, & Villalba,
2008). In Scotland, in the Machrie Moor’s stone circles site
(Isle of Arran), on pottery fragments of which the oldest
were dated to 3500 ±70 BC, organic material was found
with traces of hazelnuts, cereals, and honey; a fact that
suggests a kind of beer was prepared (Dineley & Dineley,
2000, p. 138). In the Aegean area, the earliest references to
the production of a cereal beer, dated to 2200 BC, come
from the Minoan site of Myrtos (Crete; Tzedakis &
Martlew, 1999, pp. 159–161).
The vine from which modern grape wines are obtained –V.
vinifera L. subsp. vinifera –was created by selection from a
wild vine species, recognized as V. vinifera subsp. sylvestris
(Vitaceae;Renfrew, 1995, p. 255). In different geographical
areas, wines obtained from wild vines preceded those
obtained from cultivated vines, a fact that provides evidence
of how viticulture was not a prerequisite for the production
of wine (Valamoti, Mangafa, Koukouli-Chrysanthaki, &
Malamidou, 2007, p. 58).
The oldest evidence of production of wild grape wine is
currently dated around 5800 BC, found at the Godachrili
Goa site (Georgia; Kvavadze, Jalabadze, & Shakulashvili,
2010). Another ancient piece of evidence, dated to
5400–5000 BC, is located in a Lake Urmia basin site (Iran);
a millennium later, the wild vine was cultivated, and the
domesticated form appeared a little later still (McGovern,
Glusker, Exner, & Voigt, 1996).
Recent studies suggest a multilocality of genetic selec-
tion in the process of vine domestication. Over 70% of the
cultivars of the Iberian Peninsula show chlorotypes that are
compatible with wild vine populations originating in the
western Mediterranean region (Arroyo-García et al., 2006).
A secondary vine domestication center was identiﬁed in
Sardinia (Italy), following the discovery of vine seeds in the
Sa Osa site, dated to the Bronze Age (1350–1150 BC;
Ucchesu et al., 2015). Even more recently, the genetic
analysis of vine seeds found in Neolithic horizons of the
Serratura Cave (Salerno) seems to conﬁrm a domestication
of the wild vine in southern Italy, independent of the
Caucasian one (Gismondi et al., 2016).
In the Anatolian region, the oldest evidence dates back to
3500–3100 BC, located in the Warka site (the ancient Uruk,
Irak), consisting of the residue in a ceramic container in
which the presence of tartaric acid was conﬁrmed (Badler,
McGovern, & Glusker, 1996).
In Greece, the most ancient evidence for wine-making
is located in the Neolithic site of Dikili Tash/Philippoi,
Macedonia, where on the ﬂoor of a house numerous grape
seeds and pressed grape skins have been found, dated to
4460–4000 BC, and recognized as belonging to the wild
form of the vine. Speciﬁc chemical investigation evidenced
that these grapes had been pressed to obtain the juice for the
preparation of wine (Garnier & Valamoti, 2016).
In Egypt, the grapevine was not a native species, and the
ﬁrst wine was imported from the Levant, as evidenced by
the discovery of 700 jars in the Tomb U-j of the king
Scorpio I of Dynasty 0, dated to the Naqada IIIA2 period,
ca. 3150 BC. The analysis of the residue in three of these
jars showed the presence of tartaric acid and a resin,
probably terebinth (McGovern, Mirzoian, & Hall, 2009).
Viticulture originated during the First and Second Dynas-
ties, as evidenced by the ﬁnding of wine jars made from Nile
alluvial clay and grape remains in the Abydos and Saqqara
cemeteries (McGovern, 2001, p. 402).
The oldest archeological evidence concerning mead is
associated with Neolithic huts excavated beneath the Azután
megalith (Toledo, Spain) and dated to 4220–3970 BC. The
analysis of a ceramic sherd evidenced the presence of altered
pollens of heather, cistus, and oak, in addition to cerotic
acid, beeswax esters, glucose, and diatoms; a combination
of elements that made it possible to identify the residue as
honey diluted in water (Juan-Stresserras & Matamala,
2005). The analysis of a clay pot belonging to the necropolis
of Valle de las Higueras, in the same Toledo region and with
a chronology close to the previous one, also suggests the
identiﬁcation of a residue of mead (Bueno Ramírez, Barroso
Bermejo, & Balbín Behrmann, 2005). In connection with
this practice, it should be noted that the oldest documenta-
tion attesting the collection of honey from bees was also
found in Spain, based on depictions in prehistoric paintings
from the Mesolithic period (Dams & Dams, 1977).
In a ceramic sherd from the Los Dolientes I site, located in
the Ambrona Valley (Soria, Spain), belonging to the Bell
Beaker culture of the middle of the 3rd millennium BC, a
residue that would seem to correspond to a wild pear cider
has been detected (Rojo-Guerra, Garrido-Pena, & García-
Martínez de Lagrán, 2008, p. 98).
Kava (P. methysticum)
Kava is the name of both the plant and the psychoactive
drink made from its roots, whose use is widespread in New
Guinea and in large areas of the Paciﬁc Ocean. The active
ingredients are the kavalactones.
There is a general agreement among scholars that the kava
plant –P. methysticum G. Forst, Piperaceae –was created
from a wild species, Piper wichmannii C. DC., and an
interesting conﬁrmation of this botanical genesis is found
in some traditional myths about the origin of kava (used
today), which refer to a “kava of the ancestors”(Samorini,
2016b, pp. 152–153). Kava was once taken by chewing its
roots and swallowing their juice, and this method is probably
the oldest one, as well as being one that left no archeological
traces. At a later stage, the pre-masticated boluses of the roots
were extracted from the mouth and placed in containers with
the addition of water. Another technique, which is the basis
4|Journal of Psychedelic Studies
of today’s preparation of the kava drink, involves crushing
the roots using mortars and pestles.
The archeological evidence concerning kava is scarce.
Samples of the domesticated species, dated to before 850
AD, have been found in some archeological sites in Remote
Oceania, including the Vaito’otia site (Huahine, Society
Islands; Sinoto, 1983, p. 59). Other indications, with more
recent dates, have been obtained through the identiﬁcation
of kavalactones in archeological ﬁnds (Hocart, Fankhauser,
& Buckle, 1993) and the observation in skeletons of a
degeneration of the mandibular joint attributable to assidu-
ous chewing of kava roots (Visser, 1994).
It has been suggested that a set of stone mortars and
pestles endowed with characteristic ornamentations, of
which the oldest are dated to 3400 BC, and which are
widespread in New Guinea, were used for the preparation
of the “ancestors’kava,”because of a signiﬁcant geographi-
cal correspondence between the spread of these ﬁnds and the
geographical range of the wild species of kava (Ambrose,
Betel (A. catechu)
Betel consists of three ingredients: Piper betle L. leaf
(Piperaceae), pieces of the nut of A. catechu L. (Arecaceae),
and slaked lime. These three products are joined together in
a bolus that is kept in the mouth, where the active principles
of the two plant sources react with slaked lime in order to be
absorbed through the buccal mucosa, synergistically
producing a stimulating effect.
The use of betel is widespread in three continents: Asia,
Oceania, and Africa. It spread to the latter of these during a
relatively late period, perhaps around the 7th century AD,
following the migration of Austronesian-speaking people
that brought this habit with them (Zumbroich, 2007–2008,
There are several kinds of archeological evidence con-
cerning the areca nut, but there are still no signiﬁcant data
speciﬁcally for P. betle. The most ancient ﬁnds, dated to the
8th millennium BC, are areca fragments excavated at the
Spirit Cave (Thailand), which was inhabited by people
belonging to the Hoabinhian Culture (Gorman, 1970). How-
ever, in Indochina, the tree is not present in the wild form, and
botanical and linguistic data favor an origin of areca nut use in
Malaysia (Rooney, 1993, p. 14); therefore, the origin of its
use as a psychoactive is likely to precede this date.
A second type of evidence is based on the observation in
skeletons of teeth with the typical coloration caused by the
combined mastication of areca nut with slaked lime. The
oldest ﬁnd of this type is the skeleton of a man from the site
of Duyong Cave (Palawan Island, Philippines), dating to
2600–2800 BC. Some shells that served as lime containers
have been found next to this burial; a datum that appears to
ﬁxanante quem date for the addition of slaked lime to areca
Tea (C. sinensis)
The tea shrub –C. sinensis (L.) Kuntze (Theaceae)–is
native to China. For some time, it was believed that tea
cultivation’s place of origin was to be found in the southern
Chinese region of Yunnan (Berlie, 1995), but the oldest
archeological data referring to this plant are instead found on
the east coast of China. During archeological excavations of
a Hemudu Culture site –a Neolithic population with
matriarchal social connotations –in the Yueyao county,
along the Zhejiang coastal region, a dozen tea roots came to
light in an excellent state of conservation, arranged in what
appears to have been the original cultivation position.
Radiocarbon analyses dated the roots to 3526–3366 BC,
and chemical analyses have revealed the presence of
theanine, an amino acid typically synthesized in the roots
of the tea plant, which is then transferred to its aerial parts
Ephedra (Ephedra spp.)
Several Eurasian species of Ephedra (Ephedraceae) possess
stimulating properties, due to the presence of the alkaloid
Many authors continue to report the case of the burial
found in the Shanidar cave (northern Iraq) relating to a
Neanderthal man dating back to 60,000 years ago, as the
earliest documentation of the human relationship with
ephedra. Around the skeleton, an unusual concentration of
pollens of different plants was identiﬁed, including
Ephedra altissima Desf.; a fact that led to the hypothesis
that a bunch of ﬂowers had been deposited on the tomb
(Leroi-Gourhan, 1975). However, in 1999, Sommer inter-
preted this accumulation of pollens as the result of the
activity of a small rodent, the Persian gerbil, which is
known to accumulate large quantities of seeds and ﬂowers
in its burrows. During the excavations of the Shanidar cave,
many burrows of this animal were encountered, and the
polynimetric spectrum of these burrows was similar to that
found around the burial studied earlier (Sommer, 1999).
Veriﬁed its dubious validity, the ﬁnding of Shanidar has not
been included in Table 1.
The oldest archeological ﬁndings are associated with the
mummies of Ürümchi, in the Tarim basin (Sinkiang, China),
dating back to 2000 BC. Ephedra twigs have been found
above the inhumations or sewn between the fabrics that
wrap the mummies. Most of these mummies belong to the
physical Caucasoid group, a fact that conﬁrms a European
origin of this ancient population of Central Asia (Barber,
1999). In 36 graves of the Gumugou cemetery (Taklamakan
desert, Tarim), dated to 1800 BC, small packets of Ephedra
were found, invariably placed on the right side of the chest
of each body (Xie, Yang, Wang, & Wang, 2013).
Indicating a European use of ephedra as a psychoactive, a
concentration of ephedra pollen was identiﬁed at the bottom
of some amphorae dated between the 3rd and the 2nd century
BC and found in the pre-Roman village of Puntal dels Llops
(Valencia, Spain). The amphorae came to light in the main
residential structure of the town, where cult activities were
carried out, suggesting a ritual use of this plant for its
psychoactive properties (Dupré Ollivier, 1988,p.78).
Hemp (Cannabis spp.)
Questions surrounding the origins of the human relationship
with Cannabis continue to provoke much discord between
Journal of Psychedelic Studies |5
The oldest archeological data evidencing the relationship of Homo sapiens with psychoactive plants
scholars and for various reasons: from the still contested
problem of speciation within the genus Cannabis (whether it
is one, two, or three species); to the difﬁculty of distinguish-
ing between paleobotanical ﬁnds of Cannabis and Humulus
pollen (as both genera belong to the same family of the
Cannabaceae); to the difﬁculty of distinguishing the arche-
ological ﬁnds of hemp and linen fabrics. Another problem
concerns the ascertaining of the use of cannabis, whether for
psychoactive, medicinal, or manufacturing purposes.
A fact that now appears certain, as testiﬁed by numerous
paleobotanical ﬁnds, is the presence of Cannabis in Europe
from preglacial times, perhaps since the late Miocene.
Another matter subject to modern revision concerns the
origin of hemp cultivation, which would not have occurred
during the Neolithic periods, as previously asserted by many
researchers, but only starting from the Copper Age, then
more widely in the Bronze Age (McPartland, Guy, &
Hegman, 2018), while the Iron Age’s Scythians would have
introduced hemp cultivation to the European Celtic, Slavic,
and Finno-Ugric cultures. Moreover, the hypothesis of a
multilocation of the origin of the human relationship with
this plant appears to be more and more plausible, there being
at least one present in Europe and another in East Asia
(Long, Wagner, Demske, Leipe, & Tarasov, 2017).
Despite the hypothesized late, post-Neolithic, advent of
hemp cultivation, people began to interact with this plant in
earlier times. The oldest evidence attesting this report is
recognized by several authors in Japan, at the Okinoshima
(Boso) site of the Jomon culture, where plant macrofossils,
including fruits of C. sativa, have been identiﬁed adhering to
fragments of pottery with a date of 8200 BC (Kudo et al.,
2009). Although external contamination has been suspected
for these archeological ﬁnds (Okazaki et al., 2011), the most
recent revisions of hemp-related archeobotanical data favor
the validity of this Japanese anthropic evidence (Long et al.,
2017;McPartland & Hegman, 2017), and for this reason it
has been included in Table 1.
Regarding the oldest human relationship with Cannabis
in Europe, achenes of this plant have come to light at the
Frumu¸sica site, Oneçti region (Romania), belonging to the
Cucuteni B Neolithic culture, dated to the 7–6th millennium
BC (Matasaˇ, 1946, p. 39). An anthropic ﬁnding of achenes
at the Thayngen-Weier site in Switzerland belongs to the
same chronological horizon (Willerding, 1970).
Harmel (P. harmala)
The seeds of this Eurasian and North African plant
(P. harmala L., Zygophyllaceae) contain the same compounds
found in the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi)–harmine
and harmaline –but in higher concentrations. Its identiﬁcation
with haoma, the drink of immortality of the Zoroastrian
religion, has been suggested (Flattery & Schwartz, 1989).
The most ancient archeological ﬁnds date from the 5th
millennium BC and come from Neolithic sites of the
Caucasus (Merlin, 2003, p. 301). Harmal seeds have also
come to light in a pre-Dynastic Egyptian site (Maadi, Cairo)
dating back to 3700–3500 BC (Zeist & De Roller, 1993).
Regarding the iconographic aspects, it has been hypoth-
esized that the representation of this plant can be seen
among the ﬁndings of the ancient Mesopotamian Jiroft
culture (Kerman, Iran), dated to the 3rd millennium BC.
In the decorations of some chlorite vessels encountered in
funerary contexts, a plant is frequently represented which
Amigues (2009) identiﬁed as P. harmala.
Waterlilies (Nymphaea spp.)
Several species of water lilies (Nymphaea spp., Nymphaea-
ceae) are endowed with psychoactive compounds found in
the petals and rhizomes. These psychoactive properties,
which are due to the presence of aporphine alkaloids, were
discovered by two great ancient cultures –the Egyptian and
In ancient Egypt, the earliest remains of water lilies were
found in the Neolithic Nabta Playa site, dating back to 6000
BC (Hather, 1995). The exact kind of causality of human
interaction with this plant –whether for food or for psycho-
active purposes –could not be determined, but since the
psychoactive effects occur with the simple ingestion of the
petals, this property will likely have been discovered
concurrently with its use as a source of food. We are more
certain of the use of the blue water lily –Nymphaea nouchali
var. caerulea (Savigny) Verdc. –as a psychoactive plant
during the Pharaonic periods, as expressed in iconography
and hieroglyphic texts (Harer, 1985). Flowers of this plant
have been found in abundance in the garlands and among
the bandages of mummies of numerous pharaohs and court
dignitaries (Germer, 1985, pp. 37–39).
Lettuce (Lactuca spp.)
The species of wild lettuce –of which the most common in
the Mediterranean basin are L. serriola L. and Lactuca
virosa L. (Compositae)–are endowed with psychoactive
properties, speciﬁcally in the white latex that exudes pro-
fusely from the stem when it is cut. The fresh latex is toxic,
but when it is dried it transforms into lactucarium,a
narcotic-sedative medicine used until the 20th century in
Europe as a substitute for opium. At higher doses, lactucar-
ium yields more stimulating and visionary experiences, and
at even higher doses it becomes toxic (Harlan, 1986). It has
been speculated that the common lettuce of the vegetable
garden –L. sativa L. –was created by selection from L.
serriola by the ancient Egyptians (Lindquist, 1960).
Wild lettuce was widely depicted in ancient Egyptian art
since Dynasty V, which began around 2500 BC (Keimer,
1924, p. 6); it became the plant attribute of the ithyphallic
God Min (Defossez, 1985), and refers to the L. serriola
species. In Egyptological studies, another species, L. virosa,
is often indicated but this seems to be a case of mistaken
identiﬁcation, as this last species was not present in the
Egyptian ﬂora (Samorini, 2003–2004, p. 79).
As far as direct evidence is concerned, few remains are
known; seeds of undetermined species of Lactuca have
been found in Egyptian excavations, but are younger in
age (Germer, 1985, p. 185). In the 7th century BC,
sanctuary of the Goddess Hera in Samo (Greece),
L. serriola seeds have come to light next to P. somniferum
seeds, and the context leads to the hypothesis that both
plants were used as psychoactive sources (Kucˇan, 1995,
6|Journal of Psychedelic Studies
Opium poppy (P. somniferum)
The opium poppy did not exist in nature and was created by
human cultivation and selection of a wild species (Merlin,
1984, pp. 54–58). The most likely wild candidate is
P. setigerum (Papaveraceae), and today most taxonomists
recognize the existence of only one species, P. somniferum
L., differentiated into the two subspecies somniferum Kader-
eit (the cultivated form) and setigerum (DC.) Corb. (the wild
form; Hammer & Fritchs, 1977).
The opium poppy was considered to have originated in
the Eastern regions of the Eurasian territories, but current
scholars tend to put its origins during the 6th millennium BC
in a region of the western Mediterranean.
The oldest opium poppy remains thus far have come
from this region, including in Italy, from the pile-dwelling
site of La Marmotta (Rome), dating back to 5600 BC. In this
Neolithic site, intermediate forms between the wild and the
cultivated poppy species have been found, which would
testify in favor of this area of central Italy as the place of
origin for the domestication of the opium poppy (Rottoli,
Large quantities of seeds and opium poppy capsules have
come to light in the Neolithic sites of the Alpine Arc, dated
to 4800–3200 BC. For example, more than 120,000 plant
elements belonging to the P. somniferum cultivated subspe-
cies came to light at the site of Schicht 3 (Switzerland),
dated to 3200 BC (Jacomet, 2006).
In the Cueva de los Murcielagos (C´ordoba, Spain),
poppy remains were found dated to 5360 BC (González
Urquijo et al., 2000). Other remains have come to light in
several sites of the Linear Band Ceramic Neolithic culture,
widespread in Central Europe, whose most ancient ﬁndings
date back to 5200 BC (Schultze-Motel, 1979).
Tropane-containing solanaceous plants
Tropane Solanaceae, those producing the hallucinogenic
tropane alkaloids (atropine, scopolamine, hyoscyamine,
etc.), is widespread throughout the world. The archeological
data for the Mandragora,Datura,Hyoscyamus, and Atropa
genera are reported in this study.
Mandrake ( Mandragora spp.)
Mandrake is strangely absent in the Eurasian archeological
ﬁnds. The oldest record is located in Egypt. Mandrake did
not belong to the Egyptian ﬂora, and at the beginnings of
Dynasty XVIII, it was imported from the regions of Pales-
tine or Syria, and was cultivated in the gardens of the
Pharaonic nobility (Bosse-Grifﬁths, 1983). Mandragora
fruits have been identiﬁed in the ﬂoral garlands of the
Tutankhamun mummy, and images of the plant are present
in the paintings of Dynasty XVIII, dating back to 1400 BC
(Germer, 1985). A recent phylogenetic analysis inside the
genus Mandragora has evidenced a deﬁnitive distinction
between the two species Mandragora autumnalis and Man-
dragora ofﬁcinarum, and a possible ancient human assisted
migration of this latter from Israel to Persia, giving form to
the Asian species Mandragora turcomanica (Volis, Fogel,
Tu, Sun, & Zaretsky, 2018).
Jimsonweed ( Datura spp.)
This genus consists of about a dozen species spread on
different continents. Although there has always been a general
propensity of scholars to assert a long-standing presence of
some species in Eurasia; Symon and Haegi (1991) proposed
that no species of Datura was present in the Old World before
Columbus, and this last thesis continues to meet agreement
among scholars. One of the proofs given by Symon and Haegi
is based on the consideration that only in the Americas, ants
collect Datura seeds, evidencing an American origin of the
relationship of ants with these plants. Indeed, observations of
Datura seeds collected by ants are common in the European
countries (Samorini, 2017c). Furthermore, some archeological
ﬁndings, together with modern iconographic and ancient
written sources studies, appear to contradict the hypothesis
of a pre-Columbian the lack of presence of Daturas outside the
Americas prior to modern contact (post 1500 AD).
Aﬁnd of D. stramonium L. dated more than 3,000 years
before Columbus appears to come from a Bronze Age site
located at Prats (Pyrenees, Andorra). In a terracotta pot,
eight seeds of stramonium and remains of the fruit that
contained them were found. The radiocarbon dating was
found to be 1700 BC (Yá˜nez, Burjachs i Casas, Juan i
Tresserras, & Mestres, 2001–2002). The remains of D.
stramonium also came to light in an ancient Bronze Age
site (Pécs) in Hungary (Guerra Doce, 2006a, p. 294).
A species of Datura may be depicted in the headgear of
Shiva’s statuary from the 9th century AD, and both the
iconography and the description of its effects would lead to a
Datura metel L. identiﬁcation (Geeta & Gharaibeh, 2007).
Furthermore, several studies suggest evidence for the pres-
ence of Eurasian daturas in ancient literature (Scarborough,
2012;Sikl´os, 1994;Touwaide, 1998). All this leads to the
pre-Columbian presence of D. stramonium in Europe and,
with less certainty, D. metel in Asia.
Henbane ( Hyoscyamus spp.)
Henbane species are widespread in Eurasia and North Africa.
The most ancient ﬁndings belong to Egypt, where in the
Farafra oasis –a site of the Middle Neolithic dating back to
the 7–6th millennium BC –some seeds of an indeterminate
species of Hyoscyamus have come to light (Fahmy, 2001).
Since ancient times, the practice of adding henbane seeds
to beer to strengthen its effects was widespread in Europe.
The oldest evidence is dated to 2340 BC and concerns a
pottery offering deposited in a sepulchral cave of Calvari
d’Amposta (Tarragona, Spain), and in which the presence of
beer and hyoscyamine, one of the alkaloids present in
henbane, was determined (Guerra Doce, 2006b). In more
recent times, at the Celtic site of Hochdorf (Stuttgart,
Germany), dated to 600–400 BC, remains of a brewing
of malt have been discovered, and among the remains of
barley, 15 seeds of black henbane (H. niger L.) were present
Deadly nightshade (A. belladonna)
For deadly nightshade (A. belladonna L.), only a single
documented piece of evidence is known. However, it is
Journal of Psychedelic Studies |7
The oldest archeological data evidencing the relationship of Homo sapiens with psychoactive plants
signiﬁcant both for its antiquity and for the context of the
discovery. In the Măgura Gorgana site, located along the
Romanian side of the Danube and dated to 4500 BC, a
village consisting of a hundred houses and a necropolis with
a hundred graves, belonging to the Neolithic Gumelnita
culture, have been excavated. Thousands of nightshade
seeds have been found in several parts of the housing area;
aﬁnding that attests an intensive use of this plant, probably
for religious purposes (Todera¸s, Hansen, Reingruber, &
The archeology of psychoactive mushrooms tells us very
little as far as direct evidence is concerned, due to the rapid
deterioration of fungal tissue. Those prehistoric people
integrated mushrooms into their diet would seem to have
been recently conﬁrmed by the discovery of microscopic
fragments of a superior mushroom –perhaps a Boletaceae
species –in the dental calculus of a woman who lived
18,700 years ago, found in the Cave El Mir´on, in northern
Spain (Power, Salazar-García, Straus, Gonzalez Morales, &
Henry, 2015). Two main pharmacological classes of hallu-
cinogenic mushrooms are recognized: the small group of
isoxazole mushrooms, mainly pertaining to the genus
Amanita (Amanitaceae), and the larger group of psilocybin
mushrooms, mainly of the Psilocybe,Panaeolus, and
Copelandia genera (Samorini, 2001).
The oldest archeological documentation attesting to the use
of psychoactive mushrooms appears to have been identiﬁed
in a geographical area where today it is difﬁcult to ﬁnd
mushrooms: the Sahara Desert. These depictions of mush-
rooms are present among the prehistoric paintings belonging
to the “Round Heads”pictorial phase, dated between 6000
and 4500 BC in the Tassili n’Ajjer (Algeria) and in other
mountainous areas of the Sahara. The compelling evidence
for an entheogenic interpretation of the paintings is in the
human ﬁgures holding mushrooms in their hands, from
which dotted lines extend to the head. This detail would
seem to indicate that the artist was intending to convey a
statement regarding the psychoactive effects that the fungus
has on the human mind. Other large anthropomorphic
ﬁgures, probably of divine nature, are entirely surrounded
by mushrooms (Samorini, 1992). Another ancient icono-
graphic documentation concerning psilocybian mushrooms
has been proposed for a rock-painting in the Selva Pascuala
site (Spain), dated to around 4000 BC (Akers, Ruiz, Piper, &
Fly-agaric (A. muscaria)
On the rocks of central and northern Asia, depictions of
anthropomorphs characterized by heads in the shape of a
mushroom hat, or bearing a showy mushroom-shaped object
above the head, are engraved. The scholars call these ﬁgures
“mushroom-men,”and the areas where their presence is
most frequent are in Tuva, along the Yenisei, Altai, Siberia,
and the Kazakhstan rivers. They are dated to 1500–1000 BC
(Molodin & Cheremisin, 1999). Typically depicted in a
position with their legs bent, as if they were dancing or
jumping, in many cases the “mushroom-men”are endowed
with a round protuberance at the height of the pelvis. This
object would correspond to the “medicine bag”of leather
containing the mukhomor (the Russian term for ﬂy-agaric),
which is kept by the shamans, an object that was actually
reported in the ethnographic descriptions of modern
Siberian shamans (Dikov, 1971, p. 118).
A second iconographic scheme is observed in the pre-
historic art of Siberia and concerns human ﬁgures who have
a real mushroom on their heads. One of the most studied
cases concerns the rock art of the Pegtymel river, the work
of ancient Chukchi populations of the local Bronze Age,
with an average dating of 1500 BC (Dikov, 1971).
Ergot ( Claviceps spp.)
Ergot (Claviceps spp., Clavicipitaceae) is a parasitic lower
fungus of many wild grasses and cereals. Its sclerotia are a
crucible of alkaloids, partly toxic, and partly psychoactive,
many endowed with important medicinal properties. It was
from the ergot alkaloids, in 1938, that the Swiss chemist
Albert Hofmann synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide.
Given its potential as a psychoactive source, ergot has been
suggested as the key ingredient of kykeon, the visionary
drink of the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece
(Wasson, Hofmann, & Ruck, 1978), as well as the cause
of the disease called St. Anthony’s Fire (ergot poisoning).
As a parasite of grasses, ergot has been present in the
anthropic environment ever since humans began to be
interested in wild grasses, placing them in cultivation and
transforming them by selection into cereals –barley, rye,
wheat, etc. The ingestion of ergot sclerotia, which remain
mixed among cereal grains, causes a state known as ergot-
ism, which can occur with different symptoms, depending
on the proportions of the most toxic or most psychoactive
alkaloids (Bové, 1970).
Archeological ﬁnds have highlighted the presence of
ergot in anthropic sites starting from at least 18,000 years
ago in the Middle East and 5,400 years ago in Europe
(Aaronson, 1989), although it is not possible to determine
whether they are anthropic (intentional) or environmental
(accidental) presences, and for this reason, these data are not
included in Table 1.
A surprising fact regards the discovery of fragments of
Claviceps purpurea (Fr.) Tul. sclerotia in a temple of the
4th–2nd century BC dedicated to the two Eleusinian God-
desses, Demeter and Persephone, excavated at the Mas
Castellar site (Girona, Spain). Ergot sclerotia fragments
were found inside a vase along with remains of beer and
yeast, and within the dental calculus in a jaw of a 25-year-
old man, providing evidence of their being chewed
(Juan-Stresserras, 2002). This ﬁnding seems to strongly
support the hypothesis of ergot as an ingredient of the
In Southern Africa, the hallucinogenic bulb of B. disticha
(L.f.) herb (Amaryllidaceae) is employed by different ethnic
8|Journal of Psychedelic Studies
groups as a visionary, divinatory, and initiatory agent
(Sobiecki, 2002, p. 3). Archeological data attest to a human
relationship with this plant of at least 4,000 years. Regarding
the material ﬁndings, a mummiﬁed body found in a rock
shelter of Kouga Mountains, in the South African Province
of Eastern Cape, dated to 2,000 years ago, was covered with
a thick layer of B. disticha leaves (Steyn, Binneman, &
Loots, 2007). Archeologists tend to interpret the presence of
these leaves solely on the basis of their antiseptic properties
(Binneman, 1998), but it appears reductive to ignore the vast
traditional use of this plant not only as a medicinal product,
but also as a psychoactive. Remains of this plant have come
to light in other subrock shelters: in the Kleinpoort Shelter
and in the Havens cave of Valle Cambria, both located in the
Cape Province and dating back respectively to about 2,000
years ago and 700–800 AD. In the Melkhoutboom cave of
the Eastern Cape, ﬁndings of the plant have been dated to
900 BC (Binneman, 1998;Lombard, Wadley, & Deacon,
2012). Boophone has been identiﬁed among the plants
painted in the prehistoric rock art of Lesotho, in the Thaba
Bosio National Monument, and among the rock paintings of
the Zastron area in the Free State, with dates starting
from the 2nd millennium BC (Mitchell & Hudson, 2004,
NEW WORLD EVIDENCE
Chicha (from Z. maydis)
Chicha is mainly prepared from corn, and the archeological
data similarly support a probable precedence of the use of
corn as a source of alcoholic beverage compared to its use as
a food source (Jennings, 2005). The ﬁrst data of corn
cultivation come from 4200 BC in the Mexico region, while
its role in the diet as food became a priority only after 1000
BC (Piperno, Ranere, & Hansell, 2000). Consequently, we
can hypothetically place this archaic date as the oldest for
the production of chichi, although the oldest direct evidence
to date identiﬁed is at Lake Titicaca (Bolivia), dating to
800–250 BC (Logan, Hastorf, & Pearsall, 2012). Later,
more certain date has been chosen for Table 1.
Mescalbean (S. secundiﬂora)
The natives of the Great Plains of North America held
elaborate rites that included ingesting the seeds of the
leguminous plant S. secundiﬂora (Ortega) DC., known
as mescalbean or frijol rojo. This cult has long since
disappeared and was replaced by the peyote cult
Archeological data from Texas and New Mexico have
outlined a relationship of mescalbean with people from at
least the middle of the 9th millennium BC, with the oldest
date from 8440 BC (Adovasio & Fry, 1976). The most
signiﬁcant ﬁnd came to light in a Cave of Horseshoe Ranch,
located near Comstock, where a “medicine bag”was found,
ﬁlled with various objects used for magical and ritual
purposes, along with mescalbean seeds and seeds of
Ungnadia speciosa Endl. (Sapindaceae)(Merrill, 1977).
The latter species could possess psychoactive properties,
although the biochemical data indicate that it would be
toxic. In the archeological ﬁnds, it is invariably found
associated with mescalbean, and in the most ancient con-
texts, the majority of the seeds are Ungnadia, while in the
following periods, Sophora prevails. In addition, in Mexico,
in caves of the Cuatro Cienegas Basin (Coahuila), mescal-
beans were found, again together with Ungnadia seeds. The
oldest dates reach 7500 BC (Taylor, 1956).
Peyote (L. williamsii)
Archeological data have highlighted the antiquity of the
human relationship with this hallucinogenic cactus –L.
williamsii (Lem. ex Salm-Dyck) J.M. Coult., Cactaceae –
of at least 5,700 years. Peyote samples were found in several
prehistoric sites in Texas and Northern Mexico. The most
studied case concerns the “buttons”of peyote that came to
light in the Shumla Cave 5 of the Rio Grande, located at the
conﬂuence with the Pecos river. Chemical analyses per-
formed on two of these buttons have shown that they still
contained mescaline in a concentration of 2% (El-Sheedi,
De Smet, Beck, Possnert, & Bruhn, 2005). After a more
careful analysis, it has been determined that these plant
ﬁndings, previously classiﬁed as peyote buttons, were in
reality aggregates of ground cactus along with other
unidentiﬁed plants, which were given a similar rounded
and ﬂattened shape and size to those of real peyote buttons.
Chronological analyses performed on three of these
conglomerates have enabled a dating to the Eagle Nest
subperiod of the Middle Archaic Period of the Texan
tradition, with absolute ages of around 3200 BC (Terry,
Steelman, Guilderson, Dering, & Rowe, 2005).
The visions achieved by the ingestion of peyote may
have inﬂuenced the Texas and California prehistoric cave
paintings, which may depict themes related to the symbolic
universe of the peyote. This art is dated between 2200 and
750 BC (Boyd & Dering, 1996).
Tobacco (Nicotiana spp.)
The oldest archeological evidences concerning tobacco
dates back to 1500 BC, located in North America sites and
concern the species N. quadrivalvis Push. (Solanaceae). The
use of this species was later abandoned with the arrival of
Nicotiana rustica L. from South America (Pauketat et al.,
As direct evidence, organic tissue analysis of South
American mummies shows the presence of nicotine and its
metabolite cotinine (Brown, 2012, p. 114). Nicotine was
also found in the hair of 62% of the sample of mummies
analyzed that had come from San Pedro de Atacama (Chile)
and were dated between 100 BC and 1450 AD (Echeverría
& Niemeyer, 2013). Cartmell, Springﬁeld, and Weems
(2001) studied the presence of nicotine and cotinine on a
sample of 144 South American mummies of different
archeological origins, with 97% positive results. In a couple
of children younger than 2 years, a concentration of these
compounds greater than in children aged 3–14 years were
found. This was explained by the transfer of nicotine via
Journal of Psychedelic Studies |9
The oldest archeological data evidencing the relationship of Homo sapiens with psychoactive plants
transplacental passage and via breast milk. In Chile, at the
Las Morena 1 site and dated after 500 BC, one hundred
seeds of the species Nicotiana corymbosa Remy have been
identiﬁed (Planella, Collao-Alvarado, Niemeyer, & Belmar,
Cocoa (T. cacao)
The cocoa drink, obtained from the fruits of the tree T. cacao
L. (Malvaceae), was prepared with different techniques. The
most primitive one comprised alcoholic fermented drinks
made from the fruit pulp, with alcohol content that reached
5%–7%. Only later did attention focus on the large seeds,
which contain the active ingredients theobromine, caffeine,
and theophylline (Powis, Valdez, Hester, Hurst, & Tarka,
Regarding the place of origin of the cocoa tree and the
genesis of its cultivation and domestication, contrasting
theses have been presented, apparently solved only recently
by speciﬁc genetic studies. For some decades, the most
followed thesis postulated two cocoa subspecies that devel-
oped separately in North and South America, and that the
wild plants found in the Lacandonian forest of southern
Mexico could have been the ancestors of the domesticated
cocoa as we know it today (Cuatrecasas, 1964). However,
genetic studies (Matamayor et al., 2002) have shown that the
trees of the Lacandonian forest are not wild, but represent
made-wild forms of ancient Mayan crops, and have
conﬁrmed an Amazonian and Orinoco basin origin of the
cocoa plant, this being the only geographic area where wild
trees are present (Barrau, 1979).
Cocoa seeds have come to light at various Mayan sites.
One of the oldest, 400 BC–250 AD, is the Cuello site, in
Belize (Hammond & Miksicek, 1981). Much older dates
have been provided by chemical analyses of pottery resi-
dues, aimed at identifying caffeine alkaloids. In the Paso de
la Amada site, in the southern Mexican region of the Paciﬁc
Coast, theobromine was found in a clay pot dated from 1900
to 1500 BC and belonging to the pre-Olmec phase Mokaya
Barra (Powis et al., 2008). Other ﬁndings concern ceramics
from San Lorenzo (Vera Cruz), of which the oldest are dated
to 1800 BC, and which were found to be positive for
theobromine (Powis, Cyphers, Gaikwad, Grivetti, &
Cheong, 2011). Having veriﬁed that the cocoa tree is native
to South America and was brought to Mexico by man, the
original date of the human relationship with this plant is
consequently older than 1900 BC.
Archeological ﬁnds concerning the psychoactive species of
Convolvulaceae –Ipomoea,Turbina,Argyreia, etc. –are
quite rare, and frequently the exact species is not speciﬁed in
the Ipomoea ﬁndings; this deﬁciency does not allow
identiﬁcation of the presence of a psychoactive species,
since only one group of Ipomoea taxa produces psychoac-
tive seeds, whose active ingredients are lysergic acid
Among the North America ﬁndings, Ipomoea seeds were
found in two wells of the Spoonbill site (Texas) belonging to
the Ancient Caddo period (800–1300 AD). The context of
the ﬁnding suggested these seeds had been prepared for
some purpose, possibly for their psychoactive properties
(Crane, 1982, p. 86). Depictions of the dondiego, the
ololiuhqui of the ancient Aztecs –T. corymbosa (L.)
Raf. –have been identiﬁed in the frescoes of Teotihuacan
(Mexico), dating back to the 7th or 8th century AD (Furst,
Waterlilies (Nymphaea spp.)
The ancient Maya employed Nymphaea ampla (Salisb.) DC.
as a psychoactive (Emboden, 1983). It is extensively repre-
sented in iconography since the dawn of this Mesoamerican
culture, starting from at least 750 BC (McDonald & Stross,
2012). Recently, the identiﬁcation of the Maya Cosmic
Tree, widely diffused in the Mayan art, has been revised.
Generally identiﬁed with the kakop tree (Ceiba pentandra)
or with the corn (Z. maydis), McDonald (2016) suggested it
has to be identiﬁed with N. ampla.
As far as the Americas are concerned, the mushroom stones
of the Mayan culture must be mentioned, the oldest of which
date back to 1000 BC (Mayer, 1977). It is not clear if these
efﬁgies refer speciﬁcally to the psilocybian mushrooms and/
or to ﬂy-agaric, and the natural presence and ethnographic
and/or linguistic data of their use in those regions have been
evidenced (Wasson, 1980).
One of the most sensational discoveries occurred at the
Kaminaljuyu site (Guatemala): nine small mushroom-
shaped stones were found inside a hiding place, found
together with nine metates (millstones) and nine mano
(pestles). It would seem that each stone mushroom was
associated with a pair of metate and mano. This curious set
of mushroom stones belongs to the Verbena Phase of the
Mayan culture and is dated to around 1000 BC. The number
nine has been associated with the nine night divinities of the
Maya pantheon (Borhegyi, 1961).
In South America, to date, we know only one case of
iconographic evidence: the so-called Darien’s pectorals
(Torres & Repke, 2006). Diffused mainly in Colombia,
Panama, and Costa Rica, the classic form of these gold
artifacts shows an anthropomorphic structure with zoomor-
phic features, endowed with wing-like side ornaments, and
bearing on their top two hemispherical protuberances. The
most ancient ﬁnds date back to the 1st century BC (Falchetti,
2008). Several authors have interpreted the hemispherical
protuberances, almost always supported by a stem, as
depictions of hallucinogenic mushrooms (Schultes, 1979).
Coca (Erythroxylum spp.)
Two species of coca are used in South America: Erythrox-
ylum coca Lam. (with the two varieties coca and ipadu)
and Erythroxylum novogranatense (D. Morris) Hieron
(with the two varieties novogranatense and truxillense)
(Erythroxylaceae). It has been hypothesized that E. coca
var. coca is the wild species, from which the other varieties
originated through cultivation and selection (Plowman,
1986, p. 13).
10 |Journal of Psychedelic Studies
Archeological ﬁnds attesting to the use of coca leaves
among the South American populations are numerous and
of various types, including the analysis of biological tissues
aimed at identifying cocaine and its metabolites –mainly
benzoylecgonine (Cartmell et al., 1994) and cocaethylene
(Wilson et al., 2013), the latter being produced in the context
of concomitant intake of alcohol and cocaine, and the
observation of particular bone and dental pathologies
associated with the assiduous consumption of coca leaves
in combination with alkaline sources (Indriati & Buikstra,
The oldest direct evidence came to light in an anthropic
context, recorded in the Nanchoc Valley in northern Peru,
where coca leaves have been found on the ﬂoors of a house,
and dated to the end of the Las Pircas phase 6000–5800 BC.
In the same excavation context, spheroidal balls of com-
pressed slaked lime were found, which can be associated
with the consumption of coca leaves, and this should be
considered a conﬁrmation that since that period coca was
taken together with slaked lime (Dillehay, Rossen, Ungent,
& Karathanasis, 2010).
As for iconographic evidence, images of coqueros –
individuals who highlight the swelling induced by the
introduction of coca bole on a cheek –are present in several
pre-Inca artistic productions, including Nasca, Moche,
Quimbaya; the oldest ones appear among the artifacts of
the Valdivia Culture, in Ecuador, with a date of around 2000
BC (Lathrap, Collier, & Chandra, 1975).
Jimsonweed (Datura spp.)
Concerning the American archeological ﬁndings of Datura
spp., D. stramonium charred seeds were found in vases and
funeral urns of the El Mercurio site, belonging to the Llolleo
culture of central Chile, dating back to 300–1000 AD.
The datura seeds were found in association with children’s
graves (Planella, Pe˜na, Falabella, & McRostie, 2005–2006).
In addition, in some pipes from the same Llolleo culture,
ﬁndings of D. stramonium have been identiﬁed (Planella
et al., 2018). These data are the most ancient in the Americas.
The ﬁrst evidences of Datura in the North American
archeology date back to the beginnings of the II millennium
AD, and are localized in the Pueblo areas of New Mexico and
Arizona (Yarnell, 1959).
Hallucinogenic snuffs (Anadenanthera spp.)
The practice of inhaling psychoactive snuff powders was
widespread in Central and South America and diffused to
the Caribbean where it played an important role in ritual
activities. In addition to tobacco, hallucinogenic powders
are today used in various regions, mainly obtained from the
seeds of Anadenanthera spp., large trees of the Legumino-
sae family, or from the bark of the species of Virola, trees of
the Myristicaceae family. The powders obtained from these
trees contain hallucinogenic tryptamines.
Despite the widespread practice of inhaling the powders
of Anadenanthera seeds, the most ancient ﬁnding, dated to
2130 BC, concerns the practice of smoking these seeds, and
is located in the Inca Cueva site, in the Puna de Jujuy, in the
northernmost part of Argentina. Leguminous remains have
been recognized in two pipes, including Anadenanthera
colubrina seeds, and chemical analyses have shown the
presence of tryptamines (Fernández Distel, 1980, p. 65).
For the practice of inhalation, the most ancient ﬁndings
concern paraphernalia of use, that is, snuff-trays and inha-
lation tubes, dated to 1200 BC and located at the Huaca
Prieta site, along the central Peruvian coast. In the valley of
Asia, located in the same geographic area, an even greater
number of inhalation implements of the same period was
found, including a pumpkin containing a pulverized mixture
of black seeds, most probably Anadenanthera seeds (cebil)
(Torres & Repke, 2006, p. 32).
Although the archeological record is mainly spread along
the Andes and neighboring regions, there is a general
tendency to see the origins of the inhalation practice in the
northern Amazon basin. The hypothesis of a cultural move-
ment from the lowlands to the highlands seems corroborated
by various archeological, ethnographic, and linguistic
evidence, and reﬂects the more general view of ancient
tropical forest cultures existing prior to those of the central
Andes. A decisive conﬁrmation appears from the adoption
of the jaguar –a feline of the tropical lowlands –as an
animal widely represented in Andean symbology and
iconography by the Chavín, Tiwanaku, and other ancient
pre-Columbian cultures of the highlands, following
religious-shamanic inﬂuences of populations of the Amazon
forests (Zerries, 1985). The fact that the most ancient ﬁnds
were found in the highlands and not in the Amazon basin
could be explained by the more rapid decomposition in the
forest of snuff paraphernalia, since even today they are
mostly made of plant material.
In many cases, the geographic range of snuff parapher-
nalia does not match the diffusion of the plant source, in
particular cebil –A. colubrina (Vell.) Brenan var. cebil
(Griseb) Altschul –as in the case of San Pedro de Atacama
in Chile and more generally the Andean area; this highlights
a distribution system, of a commercial or exchange type,
that supplied regions far from the area of the drug’s presence
(Zelada & Capriles, 2004). The iconographic evidence is
found in depictions of Anadenanthera trees and pods that
have been identiﬁed in ceramics of different cultures of the
1st millennium AD, including Tiwanaku (Berenguer, 2001),
Moche (Furst, 1974, pp. 84–85), Wari (Knobloch, 2000),
and Aguada (Marconetto, 2015).
Some species of the genus Ilex (Aquifoliaceae) produce
caffeine alkaloids; the most powerful are found in the
Americas. The archeological data for guayusa, mate, and
black drink are reported in the following.
Guayusa (I. guayusa Loes)
In the Ni˜
no Korin site (La Paz, Bolivia), the tomb of a
probable medicine–man has been excavated, with a rich set
of instruments and plants related to his profession, including
some bunches of guayusa leaves. The inhumation belongs to
the cultural phase Classic Tiahuanaco (Wassén, 1972). The
analysis of Guayusa leaves, dated to 375 AD, highlighted
caffeine as still present (Holmstedt & Lindgren, 1972).
Journal of Psychedelic Studies |11
The oldest archeological data evidencing the relationship of Homo sapiens with psychoactive plants
Mate ( I. paraguariensis A.St.-Hil)
In a pipe of the La Puntilla site (Catamarca, Argentina),
dated to the Lower Formative Period (650 BC–500 AD),
microscopic fragments of I. paraguariensis were identiﬁed,
together with Nicotiana and E. coca. The intake by aspira-
tion of mate is reported in modern ethnographic literature,
for example, among the Tehuelches of Patagonia
(Capparelli, Pochettino, Andreoni, & Iturriza, 2006).
Black drink ( I. vomitoria Aiton)
This species was used by the North American southeast
natives for the preparation of a drink –called Black Drink –
utilized ritually as a stimulant and emetic. Its leaves contain
low amounts of caffeine and theobromine, but not theophyl-
line. In the pre-Hispanic Cahokia site (IL, USA), whose phase
of the greatest development is dated between 1050 and 1250
AD, biochemical analyses of the residues of some glasses
have highlighted the presence of caffeine and theobromine in
a ratio corresponding to that present in I. vomitoria.Cahokia
is more than 500 km away from the natural range of this plant,
and this has led to the hypothesis of its long-distance trade or
local cultivation (Crown et al., 2012).
San Pedro (Trichocereus spp.)
The term San Pedro refers to two mescaline-bearing cacti,
which have suffered a difﬁcult taxonomic remodelling in
recent decades, and currently some authors places them both
as belonging to the species Trichocereus macrogonus
(Salm-Dyck) Riccob. (Cactaceae), one as subsp. pachanoi,
called by the natives “San Pedro legitimate,”and the
other as subsp. peruvianus, known as “San Pedro cimarr´on,”
where cimarr´on means “wild”(Lodé, 2015). The arche-
ological record has shown a human relationship with San
Pedro, including both pachanoi and peruvianus, which is at
least 10,000 years old, a fact that, for now, makes San Pedro
the most ancient psychoactive from an American source.
Regarding material remains, the oldest ﬁnd was located
in the Cueva del Guitarrero, in the Peruvian department of
Ancash. In this cave, inhabited continuously since 8600 BC,
a high concentration of pollen of T. peruvianus has been
detected from the oldest phase of human occupation, as well
as some fragments of cacti, which would testify the inten-
tional introduction of this plant inside the cave (Lynch,
1980, p. 101). The dates of these ﬁndings have recently been
reconﬁrmed by Lynch (2013), who however did not under-
stand the ethnobotanical importance, since he did not asso-
ciate T. peruvianus to San Pedro, and it was only the study
by Feldman Gracia (2006) that led to a more complete
evaluation of this discovery.
Regarding iconographic documentation, the most ancient
ﬁnds would appear to be those of the Cupisnique culture,
where the cactus is associated with felines or snakes. These
ﬁndings seem to belong to the phase of the Middle Forma-
tive, dated between 900 and 400 BC (Sharon, 2001). The
most famous iconographic ﬁnd, the so-called “San Pedro-
bearing stele,”in Chavín de Huantar, has been dated to 750
BC. The cactus is depicted in other lithic reliefs of the same
site (Feldman Gracia, 2006, p. 33), including a fragment of
pottery, dated to 500 BC (Mesía, 2014, pp. 328–329).
Depictions of San Pedro also appear in the exhibits of the
Salinar, Nazca, Moche, Lambayeque, Chimú, Wari, Inca
(Sharon, 2001), and perhaps Tiwanaku (Mulvany de
Pe˜naloza, 1994) cultures.
Table 1lists the earliest known dates of the relationship of
H. sapiens with the main psychoactive plant sources. These
dates are not to be understood as the most ancient ones; they
refer to those determined thus far by archeological evidence,
direct or indirect, and several of these are likely to be
modiﬁed back in time with future ﬁnds.
For some psychoactive sources, there would appear
evident a discrepancy between the oldest dates of arche-
ological ﬁnds and the probably much older dates concerning
the origin of their human use. This is the case, for example,
of psychoactive mushrooms, in particular ﬂy-agaric, a
widespread showy mushroom for which it is plausible to
suspect a very ancient relationship with H. sapiens –if not
with preceding Homo species; eventually, what was initially
an accidental or incidential use subsequently became an
Despite these limitations due to archeological gaps,
Table 1indicates with a degree of certainty a general plant
drug use already attested during the Neolithic (for the Old
World, around 11000 BC) and the pre-Formative (for the
New World, around 8000 BC) periods. It is my opinion that,
with the current state of our knowledge, and given the
difﬁculties of identifying the purpose and kind of use of
psychoactive sources for many archeological ﬁnds, it is not
possible to reach further certain conclusions.
Several psychoactive sources continue to be “silent”in
the archeological excavations. This may be due to a lack of
archeological ﬁndings, but in some cases, the reason may lie
in their recent discovery –as could have been the case for
ayahuasca (Samorini, 2016a). Speciﬁcally, to date, it has not
been possible to identify any credible archeological evi-
dence for the following psychoactive plants: coffee (Coffea
arabica), kratom (Mitragyna speciosa), pituri (Duboisia
hopwoodii), betel (P. betle), kat (Catha edulis), iboga
(Tabernanthe iboga), Salvia divinorum, ayahuasca (B.
caapi), Psychotria viridis,Virola spp., jurema (Mimosa
spp.), and guarana (Paullinia cupana).
Acknowledgements: There were no sources of funding for
Conﬂict of interest: The author declares no conﬂict of
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