“Travels” in the Bronze Age

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Bronze Age humans are credited with several advances in civilization: the invention of irrigation, the wheel, writing systems, and the ability to forge weapons and tools from the durable metal after which the era was named.

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Now, some strands of human hair discovered in an ancient burial cave in Spain suggest another novelty: the propensity to consume psychoactive drugs.

Yage, a blend of the hallucinogenic vine ayahuasca and a psychoactive shrub, draws many people to Colombia, who seek to participate in a traditional indigenous ritual of spiritual and physical healing impossible to perform in many countries where these plants are considered drugs.  AFP PHOTO/EITAN ABRAMOVICH

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Yage, a blend of the hallucinogenic vine ayahuasca and a psychoactive shrub, draws many people to Colombia, who seek to participate in a traditional indigenous ritual of spiritual and physical healing impossible to perform in many countries where these plants are considered drugs. AFP PHOTO/EITAN ABRAMOVICH

The hair, found inside wooden containers hidden deep inside a sealed cave on Menorca, an island off the east coast of Spain, tested positive for a number of mind-altering compounds, suggesting that the people who lived there 3,000 years ago embodied hallucinogenic experienceshe knows the rituals of their life.

The results, published Thursday in Scientific reports of the magazine Natureprovide the first direct evidence that ancient Europeans used psychoactive drugs in much the same way as their pre-Columbian brethren from Mesoamericaaccording to the researchers.

Elisa Guerra-Doce, lead author of the study, said the researchers were amazed by the results, especially as the inside of the caves showed no detectable signs of the presence of the drug.

A chemical analysis of the hair revealed indications of the presence of three alkaloids known to produce altered states of consciousness: ephedrine, atropine and scopolamine.

These compounds are produced by the native flora of Menorca.

Atropine and scopolamine, powerful hallucinogens, are found in plants of the nightshade family, including mandrake, henbane and prickly apple.

Ephedrine, a stimulant, can be extracted from stone pine.

“These results are truly unique,” says Guerra-Doce, an expert in the anthropology of poisoning at the University of Valladolid (Spain).

“Sometimes when people think of drugs, they think it’s a modern practice. These findings tell a different story.”

Guerra-Twelve said the way the compounds were distributed through each strand of hair suggests the drugs were used over the course of a year and long before death.

The cave, Es Càrritx, was discovered by speleologists in 1995 and housed the remains of more than 200 people which had been buried over the course of six centuries, the last burial was around the year 800 BC

Many of them were relatives of several generations.

Interestingly, the cave did not contain the corpses of pregnant women or children.

For anthropologists, the cave’s most important treasure was the tubular boxes, mostly of wood but some of antler, which contained strands of hair dyed red.

The chests and their contents survived largely because the cave opening, more than 20 meters below the upper ledge of a 91-meter-high gorge, had been sealed by collapsing rubble long ago.

While there’s no way to know why these ancient people used such potent drugs, War-Twelve noted that the boxes contained models which modern humans might interpret as psychedelic-inspired:

a series of concentric circles that evoke the hypnotic target patterns of the past.

It is believed that ancient humans used narcotic plants for both medicinal purposes and religious ceremonies, but until now most studies have relied on indirect evidence, such as ceramic vessels, smoking pipes, or poppy or cannabis plant residues found at archaeological sites across Eurasia.

George Samorini, ethnobotanist An Italian specialist in the archeology of psychoactive plants and who was not involved in the study, he was enthusiastic about the results.

He said they have added to a growing body of evidence suggesting that hallucinogens were an integral part of ancient societies around the world.

The context of the findings suggests that the drugs were consumed as part of a religious ritual.

“This was not the profane purpose of ‘getting high’, but more generally a search for existential meaning that has largely been lost to time,” he said in an email.

Because the strands lacked a hair bulb, the scientists were unable to perform a DNA analysis that determined the sex of those who had consumed the compounds.

All three compounds have a long history of human use.

Ephedrine is a stimulant that provides bursts of energy and mental clarity and can prevent drowsiness.

Atropine and scopolamine are powerful delirious They can cause hallucinations and out-of-body experiences.

At higher concentrations, atropine can cause respiratory failure, paralysis, and death.

While it’s impossible to know for sure, Guerra-Docce argues that the presence of these drugs suggests that people using them were being guided by someone, perhaps a shaman, who knew of their powers.

“We still have a lot to learn,” he said.

c.2023 The New York Times Society

Source: Clarin

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