Oct 19, 2008

Did Stone Age Man Take Drugs?

Paleolithic Bulls and Other Animals Crowd Calcite Walls at Lascaux, France

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Graham Hancock certainly thinks so. And, he makes a very good case in Supernatural, which I might add, is one of my very favorite books. So, I was very excited this morning to see press reports appearing to confirm evidence of Stone Age drug use.

Scientists have long suspected that humans have an ancient history of drug use but much of the evidence has been indirect, ranging from the bizarre images found in prehistoric cave art to the discovery of hemp seeds in excavations.

Now, however, researchers have found equipment used to prepare hallucinogenic drugs for sniffing, and dated them back to South American tribes.

Quetta Kaye, of University College London, and Scott Fitz-patrick, an archeologist from North Carolina State University, found the ceramic bowls, plus tubes used to inhale drug fumes or powders, on the Caribbean island of Carriacou.

The bowls appear to have originated in South America between 100BC and 400BC and were then carried the 400 miles to the islands. One implication is that drug use may have been widespread for thousands of years before this time.

One problem. The time frame given -- 100BC - 400BC -- is by no stretch of the imagination, the Stone Age. To gain some clarity on the use of this term, I did a lot of googling, this morning. Ultimately, my husband located the original, peer reviewed article in the Journal of Archaeological Science. Nowhere, do the authors use the term "Stone Age," only "prehistoric." I see no evidence that the islanders documented in the article are latter Neolithic. As near as I can determine, someone thought "stoned age" was a clever play on words to describe the use of psychotropes by indigenous people, as documented by Kaye and Fitzpatrick. If anyone has a better explanation, I'd love to hear it.

Indeed, the only reference to Stone Age inhabitants of the Caribbean was here.

The first settlers were an unknown race of Stone Age people who lived in the Caribbean about 4,000 years ago.

Apparently without permanent settlements, they were hunter-gatherers. They left behind no pottery, only stone tools which the Arawaks found useful 1,000 years later when they moved into the islands.

The Arawaks called this unknown race Ciboney, after the Arawak word "ciba" for stone. Modern archaeologists still have no idea where the Ciboney wandered in from or off to, but they were gone from the Caribbean long before the Arawaks arrived.

So, as far as I know, there remains no documentary evidence that psychotropes were used in the actual Stone Age; specifically, the Upper Paleolithic era, which gave rise to the magnificent artifacts described in Supernatural. Even so, I have little doubt that some type of mind-altering methods were employed. They may have ingested any number of psychotropic plants. They almost definitely employed rhythmic drumming and/or dancing. The evidence presented by Hancock of geometric patterns, therianthropy, and nose-bleeds consistent with vigorous, ceremonial dancing, is just too strong. Here, Hancock describes the nut of the idea that inspired his research.

I quickly realized that this was the mystery, and the period, I wanted to investigate. Not that endless, unimaginative cultural desert from 7 million years ago down to just 40,000 years ago when our ancestors hobbled slowly through their long and boring apprenticeship, but the period of brilliant and burning symbolic light that followed soon afterwards when the first of the great cave art of southwest Europe appeared – already perfect and fully formed – between 35,000 and 30,000 years ago.

A most remarkable theory exists to explain the special characteristics of these amazing and haunting early works of art, and to explain why identical characteristics are also found in prehistoric art from many other parts of the world and in art produced by the shamans of surviving tribal cultures today. The theory was originally elaborated by Professor David Lewis-Williams, and is now supported by a majority of archaeologists and anthropologists. In brief, it proposes that the reason for the similarities linking all these different systems of art, produced by different, unrelated cultures at different and widely-separated periods of history, is that in every case the shaman-artists responsible for them had previously experienced altered states of consciousness in which they had seen vivid hallucinations, and in every case their endeavour in making the art was to memorialise on the walls of rock shelters and caves the ephemeral images that they had seen in their visions. According to this theory the different bodies of art have so many similarities because we all share the same neurology, and thus share many of the same experiences and visions in altered states of consciousness.

There are lots of ways of inducing the necessary altered state. The bushmen of South Africa get there through night-long rhythmic dancing and drumming, the Tukano Indians of the Amazon do it through consuming the hallucinogenic beverage Ayahuasca. In prehistoric Europe I present evidence that the requisite altered states may have been reached through the consumption of Psilocybe semilanceata – the popular little brown “magic mushroom” that is still used throughout the world to induce hallucinations today. In Central America the Maya and their prececessors used other psilocybe species (P.Mexicana and P. Cubensis) to induce the same effects.

The images speak for themselves.

A San Mural Painting of a Man Transforming into an Animal

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Detail from a San Mural Painting of a Man with Animal Features

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Detail from a San Mural Painting of a Shaman Bleeding from the Nose

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