Drug-testing prehistoric hair

Strands of human hair from the Bronze Age burial and cult-cave of Es Càrritx in Menorca have been analysed, providing the first direct evidence of ancient drug-use in Europe.

Around 1450 BC, Menorca’s inhabitants started to use natural caves as funerary structures. Among them was Es Càrritx, which had already been in use as the site of ritual activity c.1600-1500 BC. There is evidence for a ritual at Es Càrritx in which, after a dead body was placed in the chamber, some locks of hair were dyed red. Strands were then cut out and placed in a wooden or antler container decorated with concentric circles. These containers were secreted away in a separate sealed chamber deeper into the cave, but only select individuals (of the more than 200 at the site) underwent this treatment. Six complete wooden containers and four complete horn containers have been found in this chamber, along with other wooden objects (including a comb, spatulas, and vessels), two ceramic vessels, and some bronze objects including a blade and a hairpin.

A recreation of the hair-dyeing ritual in the Bronze Age funerary chamber of Es Càrritx. Analysis of hairs placed in a wooden container in a different chamber in the cave has found the presence of alkaloids. 

Hairs from one of these containers were analysed by Elisa Guerra-Doce (Universidad de Valladolid) and her team using ultra-high-performance liquid chromatography and high-resolution mass spectrometry. The results, recently published in Scientific Reports, showed that the alkaloids atropine, scopolamine, and ephedrine were present in the hairs, which date back some 3,000 years. All three of these alkaloids are found among Menorca’s native flora: atropine and scopolamine in mandrake, henbane, or thorn apple (all in the nightshade family), and ephedrine in the joint pine. While ephedrine is a stimulant, atropine and scopolamine produce different effects, as they can alter sensory perception and induce delirium and hallucinations (possibly evoked by the eye-like concentric circles of the containers). The use of the potentially toxic alkaloids was specialist knowledge ‘typically possessed by shamans’, as Guerra-Doce and co-authors write.

By around 800 BC, social transformation was under way in the Balearic Islands, including Menorca, and burial places were being abandoned. This may explain why the containers were in a separate chamber, and not with the deceased as is normally the case with this hair ritual. As the authors conclude, ‘In this context, in the cave of Es Càrritx, some individuals reluctant to abandon ancient traditions, concealed a collection of ritual objects belonging to certain members of the community, possibly shamans, in the hope that the former social order could be re-established in the future. And the best location to assure the protection of the assemblage was found going deeper inside the burial ground of the ancestors.’

Image: Oriol Garcia i Quera, ASOME–Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona