New research published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory suggests that the use of alcohol and drugs by prehistoric Europeans was highly regulated and restricted to sacred burial rituals, where intoxication was believed to be an integral part of communication with the spirit world.
Despite the fact that the consumption of mind-altering substances is as ancient as human society itself, it is only fairly recently that researchers have started to look into the historical and cultural contexts in which drugs were used in Europe.
Study author Elisa Guerra-Doce, of the Universidad de Valladolid (Spain) says that unlike modern man, prehistoric people in Europe did not use mind-altering substances simply for their hedonistic pleasure. “The use of alcohol and plant drugs – such as opium poppies and hallucinogenic mushrooms – was highly regulated and went hand-in-hand with the belief system and sacred burial rituals of many preindustrial societies,” she said. “Their use was an integral part of prehistoric beliefs, these substances were believed to aid in communication with the spiritual world.”
In Guerra-Doce’s research, four different types of archaeological documents were examined: the macrofossil remains of the leaves, fruits or seeds of psychoactive plants; residues suggestive of alcoholic beverages; psychoactive alkaloids found in archaeological artifacts and skeletal remains from prehistoric times; and artistic depictions of mood-altering plant species and drinking scenes. These remnants include bits of the opium poppy in the teeth of a male adult in a Neolithic site in Spain, charred cannabis seeds in bowls found in Romania, traces of barley beer on several ceramic vessels recovered in Iberia, and abstract designs in the Italian Alps that depict the ritual use of hallucinogenic mushrooms.
Interestingly, these traces of sensory-altering products were mainly found in tombs and ceremonial locations. This is why Guerra-Doce believes the substances were linked to ritual usage. “They were consumed in order to alter the usual state of consciousness, or even to achieve a trance state. The details of the rituals are still unclear, but the hypothesis is that the substances were either used in the course of mortuary rites, to provide sustenance for the deceased in their journey into the afterlife, or as a kind of tribute to the underworld deities,” she said.
Given that these substances were a means to connect with the spirit world, she suggests that the right to use such “sacred” substances may have been highly regulated. “Far from being consumed for hedonistic purposes, drug plants and alcoholic drinks had a sacred role among prehistoric societies,” she argues. “It is not surprising that most of the evidence derives from both elite burials and restricted ceremonial sites, suggesting the possibility that the consumption of of mind-altering products was socially controlled in prehistoric Europe.”
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