Scientific analysis of human hair from a Bronze Age burial site on the island of Menorca, Spain, has identified evidence for the consumption of hallucinogenic drugs – the first direct evidence of ancient drug use in Europe.
Until now, evidence of drug use in prehistoric Europe has mostly been derived from archaeobotanical remains, artistic depictions, and chemical analysis of artefacts such as pottery vessels.
As discussed in a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) and the Universidad de Valladolid (UVa) analysed a sample of human hair obtained from the Cova des Càrritx cave, a Bronze Age burial site situated in the Algendar ravine near Ciutadella, Menorca (Balearic Islands).
Discovered in 1995, the cave stretches 170m in length and comprises seven chambers, all connected by narrow passageways.
It was first occupied around 3,600 years ago (c.1600-1500 BC), with Chamber 1 – located at the entrance of the cave – serving as a collective funerary space from around 1450 to 800 BC.
Inside this chamber were the skeletal remains of around 210 individuals of both sexes and all age groups, with the exception of foetuses and infants aged under three months.
In another, more hidden chamber, a mysterious storage space was found. Covered by a stone slab, it contained an assemblage of objects comprising six wooden containers, four horn containers, four wooden canes, four wooden spatulas, a wooden comb, two ceramic bowls, and bronze items including a blade and a hairpin.
Several boxes – some crafted from wood and one from a bovid horn, and all decorated with concentric circles – were found to contain strands of human hair measuring up to 13cm long.
Forensic examination revealed that the hair had been dyed red – possibly with hematite-rich ochre pigments or extracts from plants traditionally exploited for dye – and combed before being cut.
Three replicated hair samples were tested for alkaloids using Ultra-High Performance Liquid Chromatography and High-Resolution Mass Spectroscopy, and were found to contain traces of scopolamine, ephedrine, and atropine.
Ephedrine is a natural stimulant that can increase excitement and alertness, whilst atropine and scopolamine can induce delirium and hallucinations.
Traces of these alkaloids may have come from the consumption of plants such as mandrake, white henbane, the devil’s trumpet, and joint pine.
The researchers suggest that, as the hair is thought to have belonged to a just few individuals, this unique ritual was performed on a small selection of people who perhaps acted as ‘shamans’, and used these substances as part of ritual ceremonies.
Populations on the Balearic Islands experienced major cultural changes around 800 BC, which saw demographic growth and the abandonment of burial places. It is suggested that this collection of ritual objects may have been secreted into the chamber around this time in order to preserve these ancient traditions.