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The Highs And Lows Of Ancient Heroin And Cocaine

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The Highs And Lows Of Ancient Heroin And Cocaine

For two centuries archaeologists and anthropologists have uncovered evidence of the ritual and medicinal application of mind-altering drugs which were central components in ancient human cultures. While much has been written about the use of ‘magic mushrooms’ and other hallucinogenic fungi in prehistoric cultures, less is said about the use of opium (heroin) and coca (cocaine), which have both developed from being ancient healing and ritual plants to social poisons, but modern societies can learn much from man’s ‘primitive’ ancestors’ use of these two highly abused substances.

Papaver somniferum, commonly known as the opium poppy is native to the eastern Mediterranean but is now naturalized across much of Europe and Asia. (Public Domain)

Papaver somniferum, commonly known as the opium poppy is native to the eastern Mediterranean but is now naturalized across much of Europe and Asia. (Public Domain)

Archaeological Evidence of Ancient Drugs

According to a 2015 review by Dr. Elisa Guerra-Doce, an associate professor of prehistory at the University of Valladolid in Spain: “It is generally thought that mind-altering substances, or at least drugs, are a modern-day issue, but if we look at the archaeological record, there are many data supporting their consumption in prehistoric times.” The fossils of psychoactive plants and the residues of alcohol and psychoactive chemicals found on pottery and depicted in prehistoric art, offer archaeologists information about how hunter-gatherer ancestors gathered natural plants, what their preferred pharmacological species were, and how this knowledge spread with migrations.


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