Drugs have been with us for a very, very long time. Probably even longer than we have been us. Scientists believe intoxication is a common feature of the animal kingdom, a happy accident of evolution that allows countless species to escape the bounds of their own experience, if only briefly.
Humans didn’t figure out how to brew beer until roughly 10,000 years ago, but early hominids likely came across naturally fermented alcohol on occasion. Opium has been in use for at least 7,000 years, and we know natural hallucinogens such as mescaline have been used by indigenous groups for millennia. Which is to say nothing of weed, a human staple for more than 5,000 years.
How did recreational drug use begin?
But what qualifies as mankind’s first drug? What started us down the long path toward recreational intoxication?
Of course, there’s no way to be absolutely sure, not without a time machine. But many scientists and observers believe our first contact with drugs as true humans – homo sapiens – likely came in the form of magic mushrooms.
That’s right, the same bag of p. cubensis you just scarfed with your roommate may be the oldest recreational substance in human history. But why is that?
All of our earliest intoxicants occur naturally, in the form of plants, animals, or fungi; we have since learned to synthesize drugs in the lab, but even those substances typically derive from or mimic chemicals found in nature.
That doesn’t mean all these early drugs were easy to find. Marijuana grew only in the tropical regions of Nepal, India, and Afghanistan until humans first learned to grow it elsewhere. Peyote, a cactus species that contains mescaline, grows wild only in especially dry parts of Mexico and Texas.
There are other intoxicating plants, in Africa, in Asia, and elsewhere. But these, too, have historically been available only in limited geographic regions.
Mushrooms grow naturally in varying climates
Shrooms, on the other hand, can grow almost anywhere, and do. They’re native to warmer climes, and they can’t be found in colder regions, including the northern parts of the United States. But that leaves a huge swath of the globe, stretching far beyond the subtropics.
As a fungus, psylocibe cubensis – the type of mushroom that gets you high – grows mostly in cattle pastures. It thrives in piles of fresh cow manure, sprouting in a matter of days. Presumably it also grows in other animal dung, and that is most likely where early humans found it in Africa.
Shrooms are the original hallucinogen. They cause intense euphoria and create visual and auditory distortions, including occasional hallucinations – the “trip.” The effects are similar to those of acid, if less intense.
This out-of-mind experience was likely very appealing to the first people who tried it. It would have allowed them a temporary reprieve from the harsh realities of a short life on the savannah.
Of course, a fair number of those lives were cut even shorter because of shrooms. P. cubensis is easy to confuse with other mushroom species, many of which are poisonous and potentially lethal. Which means the search for good shrooms probably killed a fair number of early humans.
This is why most shroom enthusiasts grown their own these days. Dedicated mushroom hunters still chase down wild samples, but they usually have years of careful experience distinguishing similar fungi.