Sunday, October 19, 2008

Stone Age Drug Paraphernalia

Ceramic bowls and tubes discovered--but what were they sniffing?

Archeologists have never doubted that prehistoric man liked to get high. Previous excavations in Mexico and Texas have yielded indirect evidence of the New World use of peyote and mescal several thousand years ago. However, researcher Quetta Kaye of University College, London, says she has found the actual works—“The objects tested for this study are ceramic inhaling bowls that were likely used for the ingestion of hallucinogenic substances,” Kaye wrote in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Such physical finds are not uncommon, but the estimated age of these ceramic items caught the attention of archeologists. In a report published in the London Sunday Times, science editor Jonathan Leake writes that the bowls likely originated in South America between 100 and 400 B.C., and were carried to the Caribbean island of Carriacou, where Kaye, along with Scott Fitzpatrick from North Carolina State University, discovered the artifacts.

So what, exactly, were Stone Age Caribbeans snorting or smoking? It wasn’t cannabis, since the plant was not growing in the Caribbean at that time, experts say. Some form of psychoactive fungi or mold, like ergot, or a mind-altering mushroom are always possibilities. But according to the Times report, “Kaye believes one of the most likely [drugs] was cohoba, a hallucinogen made from the beans of a mimosa species.” This DMT-containing plant is known to have been used as a hallucinogenic snuff by the Taíno, a Caribbean people who dominated the islands of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica from 1200 A.D. until the time of Columbus.

Jonathan Ott writes in “Pharmacotheon” that “during Columbus' second voyage to the Americas, 1493-1496, the Admiral himself commented on a mysterious ‘powder’ which the ‘kings’ of the Taíno Indians of the island of Hispaniola would ‘snuff up,’ and that ‘with this powder they lose consciousness and become like drunken men’" (Torres 1988; Wassén 1967).

Cohoba was also sniffed in Trinidad, and in parts of northern South America. DMT is a powerful, short-acting hallucinogen with striking visual imagery, often combined with an MAOI inhibitor for maximum effectiveness. Ayahuasca is another potent South American brew with similar effects. Cohoba is reportedly still in use by shamans in the Amazon basin.

Richard Davenport-Hines, author of “The Pursuit of Oblivion,” and a former history professor at the London School of Economics, told The Times: “Drug use became widespread in many early agriculture-based societies simply because it was the only way people could cope with spending long hours working in the fields, often in horrible conditions like baking sun.”

That’s one theory, anyway. Other archeologists and anthropologists have long maintained that humans have used psychoactive plants for thousands of years primarily in shamanic practices and religious rituals.

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