Stimulant Ephedrine Was Known and Used in Bronze Age

Ephedrine currently has a variety of medical uses, including as a decongestant.

(p. A4) Bronze Age humans have been credited with a number of civilizational advancements: the invention of irrigation, the wheel, writing systems and the ability to forge weapons and tools from the durable metal that lends the era its name.

Now, strands of human hair discovered in an ancient burial cave in Spain suggest another novelty: a proclivity for consuming psychoactive drugs.

. . .

The findings, published Thursday [April 6, 2023] in Scientific Reports of the journal Nature, provide the first direct evidence that ancient Europeans consumed psychoactive drugs much like their pre-Columbian brethren in Mesoamerica, the researchers said.

Elisa Guerra-Doce, the lead author of the study, said researchers were stunned by the results, especially because the cave interiors yielded no detectable signs of the drugs’ presence. A chemical analysis of the hair revealed evidence of three alkaloid substances known to produce altered states of consciousness: ephedrine, atropine and scopolamine.

The compounds themselves are produced by flora native to Minorca. Atropine and scopolamine, powerful hallucinogens, can be found in plants in the nightshade family, among them mandrake, henbane and thorn apple. Ephedrine, a stimulant, can be extracted from joint pine.

“These findings are so singular,” said Ms. Guerra-Doce, an expert in the anthropology of intoxication at the University of Valladolid in Spain. “Sometimes when people think about drugs, they think it’s a modern practice. These results tell a different story.”

. . .

The three compounds have a long history of human use. Ephedrine is a stimulant that provides bursts of energy and mental clarity, and it can stave off sleepiness. Atropine and scopolamine are powerful deliriants that can produce hallucinations and out-of-body experiences.

For the full story, see:

Andrew Jacobs. “Scientists See Bronze Age In New Light: It Was Trippy.” The New York Times (Friday, April 7, 2023): A4.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date April 6, 2023, and has the title “Tripping in the Bronze Age.”)

The academic paper mentioned in the passage quoted above is:

Guerra-Doce, E., C. Rihuete-Herrada, R. Micó, R. Risch, V. Lull, and H. M. Niemeyer. “Direct Evidence of the Use of Multiple Drugs in Bronze Age Menorca (Western Mediterranean) from Human Hair Analysis.” Scientific Reports 13, no. 1 (April 6, 2023): article #4782.

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