Researchers have found the earliest direct evidence of drug use in human remains from Menorca. By analyzing human hair from an archaeological site in Es Càrritx, they have provided the first direct evidence of drug use during prehistoric times. The team identified several plants at the site that contain a group of nitrogen-containing compounds called alkaloids, including ephedrine, atropine, and scopolamine, which were consumed by the inhabitants of Menorca more than 1100 years ago. The researchers used an advanced technique called ultra-high performance liquid chromatography-high resolution mass spectrometry to identify the molecules. The findings may help to lay the debate of how old the use of plants for their psychotropic effects actually is to rest.
As seen in the coverage by a recent study, researchers have found the earliest direct evidence of drug use by analyzing human hair from remains recovered in Menorca. The use of plants for their psychotropic effects has been intertwined with mankind’s history, but the exact age of this practice has been debated in the scientific community for quite some time. However, recent findings may help lay this question to rest.
The researchers analyzed human hair from remains recovered from an archaeological site in Es Càrritx, Menorca in the Balearic Islands. They say that they have provided the first direct evidence of drug use during prehistoric times. “We have tried to find direct proof of prehistoric drug consumption using current toxicology procedures,” explained Cristina Rihuete-Herrada of the Department of Prehistory at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. “And we have succeeded. Our study has demonstrated that 3000 years ago, there was consumption of hallucinogenic substances. It is the oldest evidence known so far in Europe.”
Hair is difficult to study in ancient remains as it decays, meaning there is very little left during excavations to analyze. “Hair is subject to decay, as any other organic substance, although its decomposition rate is slower because it is more resistant to bacterial and fungi attack,” said Rihuete-Herrada. “Under certain circumstances, hair can last for a few centuries, but it is more than rare to find any kind of hair in prehistoric contexts.
The team identified several plants at the site that contain a group of nitrogen-containing compounds called alkaloids, which have pronounced physiological effects. These included ephedrine, atropine, and scopolamine, and evidence hints that they were consumed by the inhabitants of Menorca more than 1100 years ago.
To identify the molecules, the researchers used an advanced technique called ultra-high performance liquid chromatography-high resolution mass spectrometry, which allows research to characterize molecules based on their masses.
“Drug consumption, especially psychoactive alkaloids as the ones we have identified, is supposed to have been…” As seen in the coverage by the researchers, the consumption of these psychoactive alkaloids is supposed to have been prevalent during prehistoric times. Plant remains are also difficult to find in prehistoric contexts for the same reason as hair: they are also organic and therefore subject to decay. Nevertheless, they can survive thousands of years if they were partly burned.
The study provides a new insight into the history of drug use and how it has been a part of human culture for thousands of years. The findings may also help researchers better understand how these substances were used and what effects they had on the people who consumed them. This research could also have implications for modern-day drug use and addiction, as it shows that the use of psychoactive substances is not a recent phenomenon and has been a part of human history for thousands of years.