Origins of inebriation revealed

Guy drinking beer.
Prehistoric people of Europe didn't use mind-altering substances for hedonistic pleasure. Drugs and alcohol were an important part of ritual ceremonies. (Image credit: schankz | Shutterstock)

In prehistoric Eurasia, drugs and alcohol were originally reserved for ritual ceremonies, and weren't used merely to satisfy hedonistic motives, a new study suggests. What's more, given the sacred role of the substances, their use was likely highly regulated and only available to elite citizens.

Many Eurasian cultures are known to have an ancient history with psychoactive substances, as evidenced by early written documents. The Greek historian Herodotus, for example, once described the Scythians' (Iranian equestrian tribes) post-funeral purification ceremony involving hemp, which dates back to the fifth century B.C.

But written records aren't the only indication of early drug and alcohol use.

"It is generally thought that mind-altering substances, or at least drugs, are a modern-day issue, but if we look at the archaeological record of prehistoric Europe, there are many data supporting their consumption," said study author Elisa Guerra-Doce, a prehistory expert at the University of Valladolid in Spain. "Apart from the presence of macrofossil remains of plants with these [mind-altering] properties, there are artistic depictions of opium poppies, for instance, and some designs in megalithic tombs may have been inspired by altered states of consciousness." [Trippy Tales: The History of 8 Hallucinogens]

This cuneiform text dates back to the 6th year of prince Lugalanda who ruled about 2370 B.C. in southern Mesopotamia. It is an administrative document concerning deliveries of three sorts of beer to different recipients (to the palace and to a temple for offerings) and gives the exact quantities of barley and other ingredients used in brewing. (Image credit: Max Planck Society)

Despite numerous indications, archaeologists have largely overlooked the use of mind-altering substances in Eurasian prehistory. So Guerra-Doce decided to sort through the scarce and scattered information in the scientific literature, in hopes of gaining a better understanding of the history and context of ancient drug and alcohol use.

She reviewed four lines of evidence: macrofossil remains of psychoactive plants, residues from fermented alcoholic drinks, psychoactive alkaloids (chemical compounds) on artifacts and skeletal remains, and artistic depictions of psychoactive plants and drinking scenes.

Widespread use

In prehistoric sites throughout Europe, archaeologists have found the remains of numerous psychoactive plant and fungi species, including opium poppy, deadly nightshade, hallucinogenic mushrooms and ergot fungus. However, it's not always possible to determine how people used the substances, if they did at all.

For instance, at a Neanderthal burial cave at Shanidar, in northern Iraq dating to around 60,000 B.C., researchers discovered the remains of many medical plant species, suggesting the grave belonged to a shaman. But other scientists argue that a gerbil-like rodent called the Persian jird may have brought the plants into the cave after the Neanderthal there had died.

Yet many archaeobotanical finds provide strong evidence for the prehistoric use of mind-altering substances. In particular, at an archaeological site near Bucharest, Romania, scientists found charred Cannabis seeds from plants in some tombs. The main psychoactive compound of marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol(THC), which is most abundant in the female plants (Cannabis plants are typically either male or female, with male plants producing pollen that pollinates the seed-producing flowers of the female plant)."The presence of burnt seeds in these tombs proves that the prehistoric societies of eastern Europe were aware of this, and consequently, they burnt female plants," Guerra-Doce told Live Science. [Image Gallery: 7 Potent Medicinal Plants]

Alcoholic residues suggest many prehistoric Eurasians drank fruit wines, mead, beer (from barley and wheat) and fermented drinks made from dairy products.

The discovery of alcoholic fermentation appears to date back to about 7000 B.C. in China. By 5000 B.C., people in the Zagros Mountains of northwestern Iran drank wine instilled with pine resin (for its preservative or medicinal properties). And at a site in southeastern Armenia dating to 4000 B.C., scientists unearthed a fully equipped winery — they think the wine was made for mortuary practices, considering there were 20 burial graves, which contained drinking cups, next to the winemaking facility.

Importantly, though some pottery fragments containing residues of beer and wine come from settlements, most actually come from burial sites. "Many tombs have provided traces of alcoholic drinks and drugs," Guerra-Doce said. "I think these substances were used to aid in communication with the spirit world."

Some artistic representations also hint at ceremonial drug and alcohol use in prehistory. One of the most revealing items may be a 30-inch-tall (76 centimeters) terracotta figurineknown as the "Poppy Goddess." The figurine, found in an almost 3000-year-old cult chamber in Crete, depicts a bare-breasted woman with upraised arms and a head bearing three movable hairpins shaped like poppy capsules. Certain features of the capsules suggest how opium may have been extracted, and the figurine displays a serene facial expression, which some experts interpret as depicting a trancelike state gained from inhaling opium fumes.

Only for the elite?

Guerra-Doce's analysis further suggests that psychoactive substances may have been reserved for the elite. "The main evidence to support that idea is the archaeological contexts where they have been found: tombs of high-status individuals and restricted ceremonial places," she said.

For example, at a Bronze Age cemetery in southeastern Spain, archaeologists have found psychoactive alkaloids of opiates in tombs of the upper class. Similarly, a luxurious tomb in another area of Spain contained evidence of the hallucinogenic alkaloid hyoscyamine, which comes from the nightshade family of plants.

Alcohol also seems to have been mainly for the upper class. One of the most impressive examples comes from the so-called Hochdorf Chieftain's Grave in Germany — a Celtic burial chamber for a 40-year-old man that dates to around 530 B.C. In the princely tomb, researchers found an enormous bronze cauldron from Greece that contained 350 liters (92 gallons) of mead.

"I think that prior to a large-scale production, [alcoholic drinks] were reserved for special events, and they played a similar role as drug plants," Guerra-Doce said.After large-scale production became possible, alcohol likely became available to many people (not just elites), and its use shifted from ritualistic to hedonistic in nature, she added.

Drug plants, on the other hand, were never cultivated on a large scale. And though they were also eventually consumed for hedonistic purposes, this use is difficult to observe in the archaeological record, Guerra-Doce said. "Interestingly, the common names of some of these plants refer to madness, to evil spirits, to harmful effects, so I think a taboo was imposed in order to avoid their use for hedonistic purposes," shesaid.

Originally published on Live Science.

Joseph Castro
Live Science Contributor
Joseph Bennington-Castro is a Hawaii-based contributing writer for Live Science and He holds a master's degree in science journalism from New York University, and a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Hawaii. His work covers all areas of science, from the quirky mating behaviors of different animals, to the drug and alcohol habits of ancient cultures, to new advances in solar cell technology. On a more personal note, Joseph has had a near-obsession with video games for as long as he can remember, and is probably playing a game at this very moment.