Es Càrritx (Espagne): Evidence of drug use during Bronze Age ceremonies


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An analysis of strands of human hair from a burial site in Menorca, Spain, indicates that ancient human civilisations used hallucinogenic drugs derived from plants, reports a new paper published in Scientific Reports. These findings are the first direct evidence of ancient drug use in Europe, which may have been used as part of ritualistic ceremonies.

Previous evidence of prehistoric drug use in Europe has been 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.

41598 2023 31064 fig2 htmlView of the entrance of Es Càrritx (upper left); the deposit of Chamber 5 with the tubes containing the human hair placed at the center (upper right, courtesy of Consell Insular de Menorca); plan of the cave and section of the deposit found in chamber 5 (P. Arnau, J. L. Florit, J. Márquez & M. Márquez)

Elisa Guerra-Doce and colleagues examined 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. Previous research suggests that around 210 individuals were interred in this chamber. However, 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 authors 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 authors detected scopolamine, ephedrine and atropine in three replicated hair samples.

The authors 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). The authors 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.

Direct evidence of the use of multiple drugs in Bronze Age Menorca (Western Mediterranean) from human hair analysis - Scientific Reports 10.1038/s41598-023-31064-2