The History of Psychedelics: An ancient tradition

17th November 2021

Psychedelics have become a hot topic of discussion over the last few years as ordinary people continue their search for alternative therapy options for a wide variety of conditions – and big pharmaceutical companies are following suit.

But while many of us are only now being made aware of the potential of psychedelic substances such as psilocybin, MDMA, ketamine, and mescaline, ancient civilisations were already using them thousands of years ago.

In fact, there is evidence to suggest that psychedelics formed part of important traditions in a number of societies as long as 6,000 years ago. We’re taking a look at the history of psychedelics and the roles they may have played in the lives of those ancient people.

What Are Psychedelics?

Psychedelics are a category of hallucinogenic substances that are able to produce changes in perception, mood, and cognitive processes in humans.

There are technically two categories of psychedelic substances: entheogens  – which are derived from natural sources, including plants and even some species of animals, and synthetics which are manufactured in laboratories.

LSD - Psychedelics
LSD Tabs

The ability of psychedelics to alter the consumer’s thinking, perception, and emotions have historically made them appealing for ritualistic and spiritual uses. In more recent times, however, researchers are increasingly focusing on their potential to treat mental health conditions such as depression and addiction.

The most well-known psychedelic substances include:

  • Psilocybin (entheogen): A substance produced naturally in over 100 species of mushrooms – often named ‘magic’ mushrooms.
  • LSD (synthetic): A drug derived from a fungus found on some grains – often called ‘acid’.
  • Ketamine (synthetic): A drug commonly used in medicine for anaesthesia and procedural sedation.
  • Mescaline (entheogen): A natural substance found in the Peyote cactus (can also be synthetically manufactured).
  • DMT (entheogen): A natural substance found in a number of plants and animals and even produced by humans.
  • Ayahuasca (entheogen): Traditional tea that has a core of psychoactive chemical DMT.
  • Ibogaine (entheogen): A natural substance derived from the tabernanthe iboga plant
  • MDMA (synthetic): A synthetic psychedelic drug – often called ‘ecstasy’.

Timeline of Psychedelics Use

As we mentioned earlier, there is evidence to suggest that a number of these substances have been used in spiritual and religious ceremonies and rituals for thousands of years. In fact, psychedelics may have been significantly influential in shaping some cultures and religions.

  • Cave paintings, apparently depicting psilocybin (magic) mushrooms, have been identified in Europe and North Africa dating back to around 4,000 BC.
  • Evidence of the ceremonial use of peyote by indigenous cultures in North and South America dates back to between 3780-3660 BC – a tradition that continues in these communities to this day.
  • An Ancient Greek Eleusinian celebration, involving a beverage that contained grains that some think contained LSD, was observed between 1600 BC-392 AD.
  • Evidence of the Aztecs in Central America consuming mushrooms – referred to as the “flesh of the Gods” – dates to around 1300-1521 AD.
  • Catholic texts from Europe – dating to around 1500-1620 AD – describe the effects of peyote as “pestiferous and wicked poisons of the dead” and “the suggestions and intervention of the Devil”.

What were Psychedelics Used for in these Settings?

In most ancient and historic societies, from Native Americans to Aztecs to Ancient Greeks, psychedelics were used for a combination of medicinal and spiritual reasons…

In Native American tribes, Peyote has been used for thousands of years, playing a crucial role in rituals and ceremonies. With the altered state of consciousness brought on by Peyote consumption, participants were believed to be able to “receive messages from the Gods” and “foil sorcerers and evil beings” that were believed to cause disease.

Peyote psychedelics
Peyote Cacti

With the invasion of the Europeans in the 15th-16th century, many of the indigenous tribes across the American continent were persecuted and many of their traditions, lost. However, in the US the use of the Peyote cactus is legal for Native American communities throughout the country and for everyone in various states.

Similarly, Central American societies such as the Aztecs likely used psychedelics – notably psilocybin – as an aid for enlightenment and for spiritual purposes.

Psychedelics and Modern Era Prohibition

While Colonialists tried their best to discourage the use of psychedelics, such as Peyote and psilocybin, among native populations in the Americas, prohibition on psychedelics wasn’t widely enforced until the 20th century.

Prior to this period, scientists, researchers, and psychiatrists made a number of important discoveries centred around psychedelics. For example,  in 1897, scientist Arthur Heffter isolated mescaline from the Peyote cactus for the first time; in 1912, Anton Kollisch created MDMA (ecstasy) as a by-product while trying to synthesise another product; and in 1958 Albert Hoffman ‘discovered’ psilocybin in mushrooms.

These scientific discoveries prompted medical and psychological research into the substances. Researchers noted the potential of psychedelics as an aid in the treatment of various mental health conditions.

Unfortunately, the growing recreational use of many of the substances – psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA, in particular – led to a gradual clampdown. By 1971, lawmakers around the globe approved legislation to classify many psychedelics as controlled substances.

The New Wave of Psychedelic Research

Following the almost-global prohibition on psychedelics, medical and psychological research into these substances plummeted once again. However, in recent years, the number of studies focusing on the potential of these incredible drugs has slowly begun to climb.

A number of studies by scientists and facilities around the world are aiming to understand how psychedelics could be useful for common conditions, from depression and addiction to schizophrenia and even stroke.

As these studies continue to yield positive and encouraging results, lawmakers and voters are also taking note. The decriminalisation of psychedelics and the wider introduction of their medicinal use are increasingly becoming hot topics of debate around the world. That includes here in the UK, where prime minister Boris Johnson recently announced that the government would be considering the legalisation of psilocybin.

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