It’s not much of a stretch to believe that getting stoned in the Stone Age was as popular among prehistoric Europeans as it is now. However, new evidence suggests that marijuana, mushrooms, alcohol and other mood-altering substances were used for more than zonking with Zonk – they played crucial roles in spiritual practices, especially burial rituals and communications with the after-world.
Elisa Guerra-Doce of the Universidad de Valladolid in Spain has documented the cultural contexts in which forms of alcohol and drugs were used in prehistoric Europe. The forms she looked for were fossilized leaves and seeds of psychoactive plants, residues of alcohol, psychoactive alkaloids in artifacts and bones and drawings or paintings of the use of these substances. Some samples she found were bits of opium in teeth in Spain, cannabis seeds in Romanian bowls, beer vessels in Iberia and art in the Alps depicting the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms.
Guerra-Doce reports in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory that the evidence of drugs and alcohol was most often found in tombs and places where ceremonies appeared to occur. This suggests they may have been used to prepare the bodies for burial, provide the dead with sustenance and comfort in the next world and possibly alter the consciousness of the living in an attempt to communicate with them.
Because evidence of drugs and alcohol was found much less frequently outside of ceremonial areas, Guerra-Doce surmises that their usage was regulated.
Far from being consumed for hedonistic purposes, drug plants and alcoholic drinks had a sacred role among prehistoric societies. 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 mind-altering products was socially controlled in prehistoric Europe.
Perhaps it’s time we start looking beyond just ‘eating’ like a caveman.