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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age

Rudgley, Richard. (1999).
New York: The Free Press.

ISBN: 0-684-85580-1

Description: Hardcover, x + 310 pages.

Contents: Acknowledgments, 19 chapters, afterword, bibliography, list of plates, list of figures, picture acknowledgments, index.

Excerpt(s): ... There is clear evidence that plants with anaesthetic properties were widely used in ancient times. Alcohol was certainly used as such, often in conjunction with other psychoactive substances Dioscorides, writing in the first century AD, mentions wine mixed with extracts of the mandrake plant (Mandragora) as being the standard surgical anaesthetic of his day. In ancient Egyptian mythology there is an incident in which the god Ra overcomes the goddess Hathor by stupefying her with mandrake beer. Beer was brewed by both the Predynastic Egyptians and by the early Sumerians, and both beer and wine have their origins in the Neolithic period, extending back to the fourth millennium BC and perhaps even earlier.

During the period from about 3500 to 3000 BC, the Bronze Age cultures of the eastern Mediterranean area were consuming wine from metal vessels. Their neighbours to the north (who were still following a Neolithic way of life) were converting to the mixed blessings of alcoholic beverages and imitated the shape of these metal cups in their own ceramic vessel designs. Alcohol use spread across Neolithic Europe, gradually displacing the use of other psychoactive substances in its wake. It appears that as it was introduced to the various parts of the continent, it was initially used in conjunction with mind-altering plants such as the opium poppy (Papaver somnijerum) and cannabis (Cannabis sativa). As the new intoxicant took hold, the use of these other substances declined. For although the drinking of alcohol was a Stone Age innovation, it was, nevertheless, a later phenomenon than the use of opium.

The opium poppy, the source of both morphine and heroin, seems to have been domesticated by Old European farmers in the western Mediterranean area from about 6000 BC. That the cultivation of the opium poppy spread westwards during the Neolithic period is indicated by numerous later finds of its seeds from Switzerland, Germany and elsewhere. By the Iron Age it was also present in more northerly regions such as the British Isles and Poland. The seeds of the opium poppy may well have been used in baking and their oil been pressed into use for cooking or lighting during prehistoric times. Yet these are clearly minor uses of the plant, and the Stone Age interest in it must have been for its psychoactive and medicinal properties. In many non-Western cultures, magic and medicine are often two sides of the same coin, and in prehistoric times opium was probably used to relieve pain as well as to enter into altered states of consciousness for spiritual insight. Opium appears to have played a significant role in the religious life of Old Europe. The Cueva de los Murcielagos is a Neolithic site at Albunol, Granada, in southern Spain, dated to about 4200 BC. Inside woven grass bags found with the burials were a large number of opium poppy capsules, and this discovery suggests that opium may have been an active part of funerary rituals. Certainly the placing of the capsules with the bodies points to a clear association between opium, altered states and the realm of death. This indicates that the use of opium in the ancient world (for example in the rituals of Minoan Crete) may have been an outgrowth of an Old European practice.

The use of cannabis or hemp can also be traced back to the Stone Age. The cannabis plant is native to Central Asia but had already spread across the Old World before history began. As well as having psychoactive properties the cannabis plant also provides an extremely strong fibre, which has been used from time immemorial. Nevertheless its mind-altering effects were also made use of in Neolithic times. Stone Age cultures on the steppes used it in a ritual fashion at least as far back as the third millennium BC. In a burial site in Romania belonging to the Kurgan people (identified by Gimbutas as the Proto-Indo-Europeans), archaeologists discovered a small ritual brazier which still contained the remains of charred hemp seeds. This, like the use of opium in Old Europe, seems to be a practice that is ancestral to those known from historical sources. ...

... The excavation of Scythian tombs at Pazyryk in the Altai mountains of southern Siberia (dating from the fifth century BC) revealed metal braziers, the burnt remains of cannabis seeds and even the poles used to support the tent! ... The presence of charred seeds in both the Kurgan burial and the Scythian tomb indicates that the combustible (and psychoactive) parts of the plant – namely flowers and leaves – had been consumed and the hard residue left behind.

Cannabis not only went west to Europe from its homeland on the steppes but also travelled to China. Linguistic research undertaken by the Chinese scholar Hui-Lin Li indicates that both the technological and the psychoactive uses of the plant were known to the ancient Chinese. In Chinese, hemp is referred to as ta-ma, meaning 'great fibre' (ma = fibre). Li also points out that in archaic times the character ma had two meanings. The first of these was 'chaotic or numerous', a reference to the appearance and quantity of its fibres. The other meaning was 'numbness or senselessness', a reference to its stupefying qualities, which were apparently made use of for medicinal and ritual reasons. The current state of knowledge concerning the prehistoric use of cannabis indicates that it was first cultivated in northeast Asia both for its fibre and also as a means to induce ecstasy among shamans. There are a number of references in ancient Chinese writings to the use of cannabis by magicians and Taoists, and it appears that such uses stem from their shamanistic forebears.

In south-east Asia the earliest known use of a psychoactive substance concerns the practice of betel-chewing. This stimulant is estimated to he taken by 10 per cent of the world's population. It is particularly popular in India, mainland south-east Asia, Indonesia and Melanesia, and is usually taken in the form of a quid (similar to a 'chew' of tobacco). The basic preparation consists of a leaf of the betel plant (Piper betle) in which the seed of the areca palm (Areca catechu) is wrapped. In order to release the stimulating properties contained within the preparation, an alkaline additive such as slaked lime is mixed with the areca seed. Many users have a quid in their mouths almost constantly, and heavy and habitual use causes the teeth to turn black. Traditionally in the Philippines having black teeth (i.e. being a heavy user of betel mixtures) was a sign of social status. The earliest archaeological evidence for the practice comes from the Spirit Cave site in north-west Thailand where Piper seeds were found at levels dated to between 5500 and 7000 BC. Direct evidence for the actual use of a betel mixture comes from Duyong Cave on Palawan in the Philippines. In this cave the skeleton of a man (dating to 2680 BC) was found interred along with half a dozen bivalve shells containing lime, and his teeth were stained as those of any serious betel user should be. (pages 137 - 140)

The Aborigines never took up the practice of agriculture before the arrival of the white man on their continent. Yet the fact that they paid an inordinate amount of attention to pituri has implications for the origins of agriculture. That what can be seen as a first footstep towards agriculture in Australia involves not a food plant but a psychoactive one is highly significant. The standard theory concerning the origins of agriculture is that this change of lifestyle was primarily concerned with food production. The Australian evidence may lead us to think otherwise. The Oxford archaeologist Andrew Sherratt has suggested a similar genesis of agriculture for the Near East and notes with particular reference to Neolithic Jericho that the first cultivated plants were not perhaps cereals at all but more valuable and portable commodities. He suggests a number of narcotic plants like mandrake, henbane and belladonna (deadly nightshade) as possible candidates.

There is evidence from the New World to support the idea that, at least in some parts of the world, the first plants to be domesticated were not staple foodstuffs but psychoactive species. Many native North American peoples such as the Blackfoot traditionally disdained agriculture and only made an exception in the case of tobacco. This pattern is also corroborated by the prehistoric origins of tobacco use. The native habitat of tobacco is in the lowlands of Patagonia, the Pampas and Gran Chaco; that is to say, the southern part of South America. It was in this region that tobacco was first cultivated by Indians in their gardens some 8,000 years ago. It seems also to have been the case that in this area horticultural practices were first initiated in order to ensure a steady supply of tobacco rather than foodstuffs.

Although the advent of horticulture and agriculture seems to have been brought about in part by the desire for psychoactive substances, the use of mind-altering plants no doubt goes back to primeval times. With the possible exception of the use of the stimulating plant Ephedra by Neanderthals, there is no concrete evidence for the use of psychoactive plants in the Palaeolithic period. Some researchers have claimed that some of the images in the Upper Palaeolithic cave art in France and Spain were inspired by hallucinatory experiences, but this is difficult, if not impossible, to prove. No clear depictions of psychoactive plants or fungi appear in the art of Upper Palaeolithic times and no palaeobotanical remains of such species have been found in archaeological sites dating to this period. The highly mobile hunter-gatherer societies of the Upper Palaeolithic period naturally did not leave such clear evidence of their use of plants as the later Neolithic farmers who lived in permanent villages. No doubt the refinement of palaeobotanical techniques will soon produce evidence for the use of mind-altering plants in the Upper Palaeolithic. (pages 140 - 141)

The cave site of Shanidar in a remote part of northern fraq has also yielded remains of nine Neanderthals, some in the context of burials and others as the result of accidental death due to an ancient rock fall. There are two particularly interesting aspects of the evidence from this site that may shed light on little-known aspects of Neanderthal existence. The first is the discovery of the mortal remains of a Neanderthal man aged about 40 who had died as the result of a rock fall about 46,000 years ago. ...

When the rest of the skeleton was removed from the ground it was transported with an armed Iraqi police guard by lorry and train to a laboratory in Baghdad for detailed analysis by Dr T. Dale Stewart. Stewart's study revealed that the right side of Nandy's body was withered - his right shoulder blade, his collar bone and upper right arm bone were underdeveloped, a condition which had probably been pronounced from birth. The indications were that during his lifetime the right arm had been amputated just above the elbow. He also suffered from a not uncommon problem among Neanderthals - arthritis. His teeth were worn down as a result of abnormal use, perhaps from the excessive chewing of animal hides to soften them, or as a result of using the teeth as a means of manipulation in lieu of his useless right arm. As if this catalogue of disabilities and ailments were not suffering enough, it was also found that he was blind in the left eye and had suffered and survived wounds to the face and skull. Clearly this individual must have been something of a practical burden to a group of mobile Neanderthal hunters, yet they had evidently looked after him as a part of their community since birth, as an individual in such a physical state could hardly have survived on his own. This shows that rather than being little better than a pack of wild animals, the Neanderthals clearly did not base their social beliefs around a 'survival of the fittest' kind of ethos but showed care and consideration to those who suffered physical disability. This level of social responsibility and conscience is all the more remarkable when one considers that there are many instances in historical and more modern times in which weaker individuals have, through necessity or cultural beliefs, been abandoned or neglected. Those who have read Jean Auel's popular saga Earth's Children will recognise in this account of Nandy, the crippled man of Shanidar, the source of her character Creb, the Mog-ur, or magician of the Neanderthal clan in The Clan of the Cave Bear, the first novel in the series.

A second discovery from the site that has caused much controversy and speculation is the so-called flower burial of the Shanidar IV adult male skeleton found some 15 metres from the cave mouth and dating from before 50,000 BP, probably as early as 60,000 BP according to Ralph Solecki, who led the excavations during the 1950s. Arlette Leroi-Gourhan, a palaeobotanist based in Paris, was responsible for analyzing soil samples ... It became clear to her in the course of the analysis that flowers of at least seven species could be identified in the soil deposits in the Neanderthal grave and must have entered this part of the site at the same time as each other.

Originally they believed it was largely an aesthetic act similar in essence to the laying of flowers at a grave today. Having considered the properties of the main six types of flowers that were identified, they later suggested that some medical knowledge of the plants may have influenced the selection of these particular flowers by the Neanderthals. The main flowering plants evidenced by their abundant pollen remains are all known to have medicinal properties, not only in Western folk medicine but also in the local herbalism that is still practised and that has been reported in the publications of the Iraq Ministry of Agriculture.

The last of the six main plants is woody horsetail (Ephedra), which has a long history of use in Asian and other medical practices. It was once thought that Ephedra was the fabled soma of the ancient Indians, a psychoactive plant consumed by priests during their rituals. It is not a suitable candidate as it has amphetamine-like stimulant effects rather than the hallucinogenic properties attributed to soma. Nevertheless, it is known from archaeological sites in prehistoric Central Asia to have been consumed with more potent substances, such as opium and cannabis. Its more widespread use is as a remedy used to treat coughs and respiratory disorders, and in modern times extracts of it have been used to treat asthma. (pages 216 - 219)

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