When Did Recreational Drugs Emerge?
We think of recreational drugs as being a phenomenon that has emerged releatively recently. However, the use of drugs, other than medicinal purposes, has existed from antiquity. The purpose was sometimes not only for enjoyment but also integrated with religious practice. The mix of various pleasures with drug use has also been a consistent pattern across time.
Early Use of Recreational Drugs
The use of drugs such as opium likely originates from prehistoric periods, although direct evidence is still entirely clear. Remains from Central Asia and across parts of Eurasia suggest plant residues that resemble cannabis have been found on braziers. In fact, the origin of marijuana comes from Central Asia and it liked reached the Near East and Europe in the Neolithic due to migrations of populations such as the Yamnaya. Some early evidence for recreational drug use come from ancient Mesopotamia (modern Syria and Iraq) and Egypt. At Ebla, in modern western Syria, a kitchen was found in a palace from the mid 3rd millennium BCE, where the ceramics were analyzed and found to contain traces of opium. The Sumerians may have also cultivated opium and traded it similarly like other commodities. Opium is native to Central Asia, which suggests the plants may have been traded for after its early use there and later attempts at local cultivation was practiced after its trade. It is possible there were many uses for both opium and marijuana in its early use. For instance, both plants can be made into other materials such as rope. Both plants also have medicinal qualities. Nevertheless, some have suggested the evidence for seemingly large-scale production at Ebla may suggest more recreational usage. Other scenes from the Near East may also show large-scale drug use. Banquetting scenes were a common theme in art and often this involved large-scale consumption of wine. However, these may have also involved drug use including marijuana and opium. In China and India, evidence from the Bronze Age also suggests early use of opium and possibly marijuana.
In Egypt, one popular drug was the blue water lotus, where it has hallucinogenic qualities and was known to have been consumed with wine. In fact, paintings of drunken festivals with descriptions and depictions of likely orgies suggest that it was ingested for recreational use. However, recreational use may have also been part of worship ritual, as descriptions of the use of the blue lotus have been found at Karnak, the site of Egypt's most holy temple. The famous burial of Tutankhamun contained the blue lotus, which could suggest its ingestion during the life of the pharaoh. In later periods, both Greek and Roman cultures ingested opium, including using it in wine. The Greek stories and mythology often mentioned drugging of the gods.
Recreational drugs also included other forms, including types of mushrooms. In Saharan and sub-Sahara Africa, mushrooms containing psilocybin were used as a hallucinogenic. They were used by nomadic populations and they could be found in the springtime. Rock art from 9000-7000 years ago may suggest that mushrooms were ingested in North Africa as part of rituals and visions seen and painted. Representations of mushrooms are also shown, which would suggest their use as part of the visions or drawings shown.
Recreational Drugs in the New World
While opium was likely the most common drug in the Old World, recreational drugs in the New World included cocoa leaves that were chewed in South America as early as about 8000 years ago. After 3000 BC, cocoa was commonly chewed and consumed by cultures east of the Andes. Later, it was introduced to the Incas and was added as part of tea or commonly chewed. The Incas considered it a divine plant and likely saw the psychedelic effects as a divine influence or ways to communicate with the gods. The Incas created a monopoly of production and was more limited in its use, probably the upper classes and nobles mostly used it. After the collapse of the Incas, the use of cocoa likely spread across South America.
While cocoa was the likely dominate drug in South America, in North America peyote was the likely dominant drug. The earliest evidence of its use dates to about 3700 BC in the Rio Grande region of Texas. Evidence suggests it was used by Native Americans as potentially a recreational drug but also as a way to communicate with spirits. The use of peyote spread in use across much of the Western United States and Mexico. Interestingly, research on the Huichol, who may have been using the drug for over 1500 years, show no evidence of adverse effects on their chromosome that would suggest long-term genetic damage from continuous drug use.