American farmers got stoned a lot

Two articles this morning both point to the widespread use of hallucinogenic plants in ancient South America. National Geographic reports that traces of the mind-altering substance harmine have been found in the hair of Tiwanaku mummies from the coastal Chilean desert dating back to 800-1200 AD. Harmine comes from the Amazonian vine Banisteriopsis caapi, which suggests that an extensive trade network linked the rainforest to the desert. Elaborate sniffing kits have been found in many Tiwanaku tombs and also, as a Times article points out, at the other end of the continent in the Caribbean. Archaeologists have found ceramic bowls and inhaling tubes on the island of Carriacou and have identified them as originating in South America between 100-400 BC. The drug of choice in this case may have been cohoba.

So why was everyone getting high?

Richard Davenport-Hines, a former history lecturer at the London School of Economics and author of The Pursuit of Oblivion, a global history of narcotics, believes humans have been using drugs for thousands of years. “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,” he said.

4 Replies to “American farmers got stoned a lot”

  1. I would take exception to Professor Davenport-Hines’ conjecture that the use of psychoactive plants by prehistoric peoples–agricultural or otherwise–was due to their supposed need to escape from the tedium and hardship of a subsistence livelihood. While the use of hallucinogenic plants was highly diverse and widespread among early indigenous societies, particularly in the Neotropics, a wealth of both archeological and ethnographic evidence clearly shows that the primary uses of such plants were for spiritual and divinitory–not recreational–purposes. Most of those same societies also had alchoholic beverages (e.g., pulque, masato and chicha) and stimulant plants (e.g., tobacco, coca and yerba mate) for social and recreational applications, although even those were often not without their own medicinal, sacred and supernatural aspects and uses. The contention that traditional drug use was or is in any way analagous to “modern” recreational drug use (and abuse) is ill-informed clearly not supported by the evidence.

  2. Yeah that sounded like bs to me too. Shamans in hunter-gatherer societies don’t take these drugs for recreational purposes, and there’s no reason to suppose that farmers would either. You can read a review of The Pursuit of Oblivion here.

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