Hallucinogenic drugs detected in 3,000-year-old Bronze Age shamanic hair samples

Strands of hair believed to have belonged to Bronze Age shamans in Menorca, Spain, have been found to contain traces of psychoactive alkaloids. Hidden in a secret compartment deep in a burial cave, the hair samples provide the first direct evidence of hallucinogenic drug use in ancient Europe.

Dated to around 3,000 years ago, the strands of hair tested positive for the alkaloids scopolamine and atropine – both known to cause hellish delusions – as well as the stimulant ephedrine.

The particular discovery was made in the cave of Es Càrritx, which is located on the Balearic island. Speaking to IFLScience, study author Elisa Guerra-Doce explained that “the cave was in use from 1600 BCE and became a burial site somewhat later – around 1400 BCE. A part of the cave continued to be used as a burial ground until about 800 BCE.

Previous excavations revealed that at least 210 individuals were buried in the cave during this 600-year period and that some of the deceased had their hair dyed red. A few strands of colored hair were then sometimes placed in small tubes made from wood or antler and placed next to the corpse of their deceased owner.

However, in a new study, Guerra-Doce and colleagues document the discovery of “a small space at the bottom of the cave that had remained sealed since [about 800 BCE].” Carved into the rock and hidden under a layer of clay, the hidden nook contained a stash of ten tubes with dyed hair inside, as well as other wooden, ceramic, and bronze objects.

Hallucinogenic drug use and hair dye ritual in Es Càrritx

Artist’s impression of the hair dyeing ritual in Es Càrritx. Image credit: Oriol Garcia i Quera, ASOME-Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

Using ultra-high performance liquid chromatography and high-resolution mass spectroscopy, the researchers detected the presence of scopolamine, atropine and ephedrine in these hidden hair samples. “The interest of this work is that it documents the consumption [of hallucinogenic plants] in human samples for the first time,” Guerra-Doce explained.

“Previously, plants with psychoactive properties had been documented in many archaeological contexts – some of which are much older than Es Càrritx – but this was indirect evidence,” she says. Indeed, excavations across Europe have found residues of opium poppy and other plant matter on ancient pots or other vessels.

“The presence of these plants on these sites does not necessarily mean that they have been exploited as drugs”, continues Guerra-Doce. “But our study shows that these people did indeed consume these drugs, which were derived from various plants.”

Scopolamine and atropine, for example, are found in plants belonging to the infamous datura group, as well as some other types of nightshades. According to the researchers, these alkaloids have the ability to generate “extreme mental confusion, strong and realistic hallucinations, disorientation… [and] out-of-body experiences and a feeling of altered skin, as if fur or feathers were growing.

“Given the potential toxicity of alkaloids present in hair, their handling, use and applications represented highly specialized knowledge,” the study authors continue. “This knowledge was usually possessed by shamans.”

Based on this hypothesis, Guera-Doce says it is likely that the hair in the hidden containers belonged to Bronze Age shamans. “Use of these substances may have been limited to those with special knowledge of how to handle them,” she says. Curiously, the tubes containing the hair samples were decorated with concentric circles, which may represent eyes and therefore allude to the “inner vision” obtained by shamans who ingested hallucinogenic plants.

Addressing the mystery of why these artifacts were deliberately hidden, Guerra-Doce says there is evidence that the people of Menorca experienced “social instability” around 3,000 years ago. “In this context, in the cave of Es Càrritx, individuals reluctant to abandon ancient traditions, have hidden a collection of ritual objects belonging to some members of the community, possibly shamans, in the hope that the old social order can be restored. in the future,” the researchers write.

“And the best place to provide protection for the construct was found deeper inside the Ancestor Graveyard.”

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

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