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Evidence of drug use found during Bronze Age ceremonies

New research published in the journal Scientific Reports has found direct evidence of ancient drug use in Europe. Strands of hair from a burial site in Menorca, Spain, were analyzed and the results indicated the use of hallucinogenic drugs derived from plants. Elisa Guerra-Doce and colleagues believe that the drugs may have been used in ritualistic ceremonies.

Previous evidence of prehistoric drug use in Europe was based on indirect evidence such as the detection of opium alkaloids in Bronze Age containers, the finding of remains of drug plants in ritualistic contexts, and the appearance of drug plants in artistic depictions. However, this new research provides the first direct evidence of ancient drug use in Europe.

The researchers analyzed strands of hair from the Es Càrritx cave in Menorca, which was first occupied around 3,600 years ago and contained a chamber used as a funeral space until around 2,800 years ago. 

The authors found that strands of hair from only certain individuals were dyed red, placed in wooden and horn containers decorated with concentric circles, and removed to a separate sealed chamber further back in the cave. These hair strands date to approximately 3,000 years ago.

The experts used Ultra-High Performance Liquid Chromatography and High Resolution Mass Spectroscopy to test for the presence of the alkaloids atropine, scopolamine, and ephedrine. 

Atropine and scopolamine are naturally found in the nightshade plant family and can induce delirium, hallucinations, and altered sensory perception. Ephedrine is a stimulant derived from certain species of shrubs and pines, which can increase excitement, alertness, and physical activity. The researchers detected scopolamine, ephedrine, and atropine in three replicated hair samples.

The experts suggest that the presence of these alkaloids may have been due to consumption of some nightshade plants, such as mandrake (Mandragora autumnalis), henbane (Hyoscyamus albus) or thorn apple (Datura stramonium), and joint pine (Ephedra fragilis). They also suggest that these drug plants may have been used as part of ritual ceremonies performed by a shaman.

The concentric circles on the wooden containers may have depicted eyes and could have been a metaphor for inner vision related to a drug-induced altered state of consciousness. Due to cultural changes around 2,800 years ago, the authors speculate that the wooden containers were sealed in the cave chamber in order to preserve these ancient traditions.

According to the researchers, these findings are significant as they provide direct evidence of ancient drug use in Europe, which has not been found before. The study authors also noted that the research provides insight into the use of these drugs in prehistoric rituals and ceremonies, which could have implications for our understanding of ancient societies and their cultures. 

“We hope that our research will stimulate further studies on the use of psychoactive plants and the role of shamanism in prehistoric societies,” said Guerra-Doce.

The Bronze Age covers a wide geographical and cultural range, so the types of ritualistic ceremonies performed during this period varied greatly depending on the specific region and culture in question. However, some general examples of ritualistic ceremonies during the Bronze Age include:

  1. Burial rituals: Burial practices were often accompanied by rituals and ceremonies that varied greatly depending on the culture. For example, some cultures buried their dead with objects such as pottery, jewelry, and weapons, while others placed their dead in elaborate tombs or even constructed burial mounds.
  2. Offerings to the gods: Many Bronze Age cultures believed in a pantheon of gods and goddesses and would make offerings to them in the form of food, drink, or valuable objects. These offerings could be made at temples, altars, or other sacred sites.
  3. Harvest festivals: Agriculture was a key part of many Bronze Age societies, and harvest festivals were a way to celebrate the abundance of the season and offer thanks to the gods for a successful harvest. These festivals often included feasting, dancing, and other forms of celebration.
  4. Sun worship: The sun was often seen as a powerful symbol of life and fertility, and many Bronze Age cultures developed sun-worshipping rituals and ceremonies. These could involve the construction of stone circles or other structures aligned with the sun’s movements, as well as offerings and prayers to the sun.
  5. Animal sacrifices: Animal sacrifices were a common feature of many Bronze Age rituals, and were often used as a way to appease the gods or ensure a successful harvest. The type of animal sacrificed would vary depending on the culture, but could include cows, sheep, goats, and pigs.

It is important to note that the above examples are generalizations and that there was great variation in the types of rituals and ceremonies performed during the Bronze Age, depending on the specific culture and region.


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