Sep 22, 2022 I Paul Seaburn

New Discovery Puts Earliest Use of Opium in Israel in Pre-Biblical Times

There are many who believe that the sacred books of the world’s religions were inspired not by gods but by psychoactive drugs taken as part of ancient rituals or perhaps even accidentally. Those looking for such an inspiration for the Hebrew bible or Christian Old Testament may have one – archeologists have found evidence of the earliest use of the hallucinogenic drug opium in ceramic vessels discovered at Tel Yehud, a biblical city in Israel. The opium residue dates back to the 14th century BCE, confirming the role the drug played in the early cultures of the Near East while showing uses in Late Bronze Age burial rituals and perhaps in the writing of sacred texts.

Opium pods

“The history of the human use of chemicals in the Ancient Near East, in order to induce altered state of consciousness, has been a long-standing debate among scholars and continues even today.”

In a paper published in the journal Archaeometry, researchers from the Antiquities Authority (IAA), Tel Aviv University (TAU) and the Weizmann Institute of Science reveal new information on the old yet misunderstood practice of consuming drugs to alter consciousness. The study was part of the doctoral thesis of Vanessa Linares, a student of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations at Tel Aviv University. Linares was researching artifacts discovered in 2012 at the Tel Yehud site which was being excavated for residential development. Dating back thousands of years, Tel Yehud was mentioned in the Book of Joshua, the sixth book in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament and the first book of the history of Israel, which begins with the conquest of Canaan. The excavation uncovered a number of Canaanite graves from the Late Bronze Age filled with burial vessels carrying offerings the dead would take with them to the afterlife. One set of vessels described as “Base-Ring Juglets” contained something never seen before in Canaanite graves.

“The eight vessels were found in Tombs 106, 107, 108 and 109. All of the Base-Ring juglets within the assemblage, with the exception of one, demonstrated strong signals of lipid preservation and opioid decomposition products.”

It is appropriate that the opioid residue was found in Base-Ring juglets because they are shaped like upside-down closed poppy flowers – the source of opium. The press release for the study proclaims the significance of this discovery:

“This is the first time that opium has been found in pottery in general, and in Base-Ring vessels in particular. It is also the earliest known evidence of the use of hallucinogens in the world.”

Vanessa Linares says this is the only psychoactive drug ever found in the Levant in the Late Bronze Age, which puts in in the area before the earliest books of the Hebrew bible were written. The opium obviously had a spiritual significance because it was found in graves. What purpose did it serve there? While it could be as a gift for the deceased to take to the gods of the afterlife, an alternative thought is that the Canaanite priests consumed it in some fashion during the funeral ceremony. The earliest known uses of opium were medicinal – as a headache remedy, a painkiller during primitive surgeries and, when mixed with hemlock, as a quick and painless way to put people to death. The priests, magicians and doctors who knew these uses gained power and esteem as a result. Thus, according to the study, by giving the dead Canaanites opium, it was a way to convince/bribe them to take care of their living relatives’ health and safety when they reached the afterlife.

“One must remember that opium is produced from poppies, which grew in Asia Minor – that is, in the territory of current-day Turkey – whereas the pottery in which we identified the opium were made in Cyprus. In other words, the opium was brought to Yehud from Turkey, through Cyprus; this of course indicates the importance that was attributed to the drug.”

The gift of opium at a funeral was not cheap – the drug came from Asia Minor or what is now Turkey, the Base-Ring Juglets came from Cyprus, and someone brought them to Canaan – an illustration of the vastness of the opium trade at the time – a business that created riches and caused wars. Interestingly, since the Base-Ring juglets appear to have been developed specifically to hold opium, they are an early example of branding – anyone who say the uniquely shaped juglet knew exactly what should be inside.

A Base-Ring juglet

“A lot of people think ancient people were very primitive and not as clever as we are today but I believe that technology was more advanced than we know and their operations far larger than we think. So it’s important to keep in mind we are not so different from them today.”

In an interview with Haaretz, Vanessa Linares defends the ancient people living in the Levant 3400 years ago during the Late Bronze Age as an intelligent civilization much like us. Since modern writers often turn to alcohol or psychoactive drugs for inspiration, could these ancient Canaanites have done the same and written the first books of the Hebrew bible? This opium discovery pre-dates the accepted times biblical scholars believe they were written – the early Iron Age. Recent discoveries of cannabis usage in Israel during that same time period prompted the same question – could those books have been written by scribes high on weed instead of opium? Or possibly both?

The study doesn’t say. However, it addresses an aspect of the vessels that might be related. Locally produced juglets and vessels showed a lower concentration of the opioids. This may be a sign that the Canaanites of the Levant may have diluted the opium in jugs used for multiple purposes in order to stretch out their supply of the expensive drug or preserve the opium for a longer period of time. It may also have been to dilute the potency of the stimulant. Why would they do that? Perhaps to allow more people to partake in the health and psychoactive benefits without suffering the consequences of large doses. Does this mean that micro-dosing was around back in pre-biblical times when those stories of floods, talking serpents and burning bushes were first conceived? That would explain a lot.

Paul Seaburn

Paul Seaburn is the editor at Mysterious Universe and its most prolific writer. He’s written for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show", "Politically Incorrect" and an award-winning children’s program. He's been published in “The New York Times" and "Huffington Post” and has co-authored numerous collections of trivia, puzzles and humor. His “What in the World!” podcast is a fun look at the latest weird and paranormal news, strange sports stories and odd trivia. Paul likes to add a bit of humor to each MU post he crafts. After all, the mysterious doesn't always have to be serious.

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