Researchers have discovered the earliest direct evidence of drug use by analyzing human hair from remains found in Menorca, Spain. The study provides evidence that hallucinogenic substances were consumed over 3,000 years ago, making it the oldest evidence of prehistoric drug use in Europe. Hair is difficult to study in ancient remains due to decay, however, it can last for a few centuries under certain conditions. The team identified several plants at the site containing alkaloids, including ephedrine, atropine and scopolamine, which have pronounced physiological effects. The findings may help resolve the debate over how old the use of plants for their psychotropic effects is.
According to an article in a recent study, analyzing human hair from remains recovered in Menorca has provided the earliest direct evidence of drug use. The use of plants for their psychotropic effects has been intertwined with mankind’s history, but the exact age of this practice has long been debated in the scientific community. However, recent findings may help to lay this question to rest.
Researchers analyzed human hair from remains recovered from an archaeological site in Es Càrritx, Menorca in the Balearic Islands. They say they have provided the first direct evidence of drug use during prehistoric times. Cristina Rihuete-Herrada of the Department of Prehistory at the Autonomous University of Barcelona explained, “We have tried to find direct proof of prehistoric drug consumption using current toxicology procedures. 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. Plant remains are also difficult to find in this kind of prehistoric context 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 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 a way of integrating with the supernatural or the divine,” said Rihuete-Herrada. “In fact, many indigenous societies around the world still use hallucinogenic plants in ritual contexts, such as ayahuasca, which is used by some indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest.”
This study provides a new window into the world of prehistoric drug use. “Our study opens new avenues of research in prehistoric drug consumption,” said Rihuete-Herrada. “We believe that the systematic analysis of hair from archaeological contexts can help to identify consumption of other types of drugs, such as tobacco, coca leaves, or opium.” The findings of this study may also help to shed light on the cultural practices of prehistoric communities and provide insight into the history of human drug use.