Archaeologists Discover First Direct Evidence of Drug Use in Ancient Europe

Dyeing Scene in the Funerary Chamber

Dyeing scene in the funerary chamber. Credit: Oriol Garcia i Quera, ASOME-Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

A study examining human hair strands from a burial location in Menorca, Spain, reveals that early human societies utilized plant-based hallucinogenic substances, according to a new paper in Scientific Reports. This discovery marks the first direct proof of ancient drug consumption in Europe, potentially employed in ritualistic ceremonies.

Prior indications of prehistoric drug use in Europe have relied on indirect evidence, including the identification of opium alkaloids in Bronze Age vessels, the discovery of drug plant remains in ceremonial settings, and the depiction of such plants in art.

Wooden Bowl and Spoon Found in the Hoard With the Human Hair Containers

Wooden bowl and spoon found in the hoard with the human hair containers. Credit: Peter Witte, ASOME-Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

Elisa Guerra-Doce and colleagues examined strands of hair from the Es Càrritx cave in Menorca, which was first occupied around 3,600 years ago, and contained a chamber used as a funeral space until around 2,800 years ago. Previous research suggests that around 210 individuals were interred in this chamber. However, strands of hair from only certain individuals were dyed red, placed in wooden and horn containers decorated with concentric circles, and removed to a separate sealed chamber further back in the cave. These hair strands date to approximately 3,000 years ago.

Ancient Hair Strand

Detail of a hair strand. Credit: ASOME-Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

The authors used Ultra-High Performance Liquid Chromatography and High Resolution Mass Spectroscopy to test for the presence of the alkaloids atropine, scopolamine, and ephedrine. Atropine and scopolamine are naturally found in the nightshade plant family, and can induce delirium, hallucinations, and altered sensory perception. Ephedrine is a stimulant derived from certain species of shrubs and pines, which can increase excitement, alertness, and physical activity. The authors detected scopolamine, ephedrine, and atropine in three replicated hair samples.

The authors suggest that the presence of these alkaloids may have been due to the consumption of some nightshade plants, such as mandrake (Mandragora autumnalis), henbane (Hyoscyamus albus), or thorn apple (Datura stramonium), and joint pine (Ephedra fragilis). The authors suggest that these drug plants may have been used as part of ritual ceremonies performed by a shaman. The concentric circles on the wooden containers may have depicted eyes and could have been a metaphor for inner vision related to a drug-induced altered state of consciousness. Due to cultural changes around 2,800 years ago, the authors speculate that the wooden containers were sealed in the cave chamber in order to preserve these ancient traditions.

Reference: “Direct evidence of the use of multiple drugs in Bronze Age Menorca (Western Mediterranean) from human hair analysis” by E. Guerra-Doce, C. Rihuete-Herrada, R. Micó, R. Risch, V. Lull and H. M. Niemeyer, 6 April 2023, Scientific Reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-31064-2

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