According to a 2019 paper titled Toxicology in Antiquity (Second Edition) , almost all of the Mystery Religions and cults of the ancient world “frequently, if not always, employed the use of psychoactive drugs or entheogens to induce altered states of consciousness.” An example was presented in a National Geographic when a pouch of ancient ayahuasca, a strong plant derived hallucinogen, was discovered “in 1,000-year-old shamanic pouch in South America”. However, exactly how high our psychonautic forebears got has always been a matter of speculation. Until now. A new method uniting modern drug testing applications with the drug residues found trapped in the tartar of ancient teeth is promising to reveal exactly what types of “magically medical” plants were consumed in past times by ancient trippers.
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Ayahuasca is just one “magically medicinal” plant which was consumed by ancient trippers. The new study has found that by analysis of ancient teeth, researchers can discover what kind of drugs were consumed. ( artinlumine / Adobe Stock)
Reconstructing Drug Testing Sciences
This new development in drug testing emerged after archaeologist Bjørn Peare Bartholdy, a doctoral student at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, suspected 19th century Dutch farmers, who he knew lived in a village without doctors, might have “been self-medicating to manage pain and disease.” Working with his supervisor, Professor Amanda Henry, Bartholdy developed the new testing technique by testing tooth calculus , the hardened plaque known as tartar, from ten 19th century farmers’ skeletons. The results, according to a report on Science Direct , showed a wider range of chemical substances were consumed than is observed in recently deceased individuals.
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The two researchers say the conclusions of most scientists in this field are flawed because they focus only on the traces of plants and psychoactive molecules gathered from the insides of pipes and drinking vessels. However, substances like hallucinogenic (magic) mushrooms were often picked, dried and consumed without using storage containers or pipes. The only data about this type of drug consumption is trapped in tooth tartar, says Bartholdy, which can survive for longer than a million years trapped in fossils .
The researchers have found that ancient teeth hold answers about drug use by ancient trippers, such as consumption of magic mushrooms. ( Jeremy / Adobe Stock)
Charting Ancient Hallucinogenic Genetic Landscapes
Suspecting ancient teeth might hold genetic maps leading to answers about drug use in the old world , the researchers met a virtual wall in their research project. Until now, science hadn’t developed a way to test tooth calculus specifically for opiates, cannabis, and magic mushrooms : the substances that they suspected the 19th century Dutch farmers had been consuming. The two researchers contacted renowned forensic dentist, Dr. Dorthe Bindslev, from Aarhus University in Denmark, enquiring if traditional drug testing methods for blood and hair might be adapted to serve a new archaeological purpose.
Their experimentation required mixing hydroxyapatite, the most prevalent mineral in tartar, with 67 drugs and drug metabolites including the legal stimulants caffeine, nicotine, and cannabidiol, and the controlled substances oxycodone, cocaine and heroin. The drug-fused tartar mixtures were scanned by a mass spectrometer which identified various molecules by their atomic weight and charge. A new paper published in Forensic Science International details how the cadavers of ten suspected drug users were tested with the new method. According to Science, it identified “44 drugs and metabolites” which is more than standard medical blood testing. The drugsincluded heroin, a heroin metabolite, and cocaine.
Tripping Backwards in Time
Does this mean that researchers can now test any ancient skull to reveal a detailed map of their drug use? Well, maybe, as it currently remains unclear just how long tartar/calculus retains plant drug signatures. It’s also important to note that researchers cannot assume that all the of plant molecules discovered on teeth, that came from hallucinogenic plants, were used for tripping in recreational for religious applications. Ancient cultures lived on a greatly plant based diet and all over the world mushrooms were consumed for their medicinal and dietary properties.
Having refined their new calculus drug testing method, the pair of researchers now plan to push back into time, way beyond their 19th century Dutch test subjects, to discover more ancient trippers. Their sights are now set on the skeletons of Viking warriors , who were known to have eaten “magically medicinal” mushrooms before fighting and during agri-rituals.