If you’re familiar with the late Terrence McKenna, an American ethnobotanist, psychedelic advocate, and author of Food of the Gods, maybe you’ve already heard of the Stoned Ape theory.
But in case you haven’t, the theory in essence goes that the explosive growth of Homo sapiens’ brain size between 700,000 and 500,000 years ago — it’s estimated that the size of the human brain tripled in this brief period — may have been related or even caused by our African ancestors foraging for and consuming psychedelic mushrooms.
Their resultant experiences, it’s argued, expanded Sapiens’ information processing abilities and gradually led to advancements in language, technology, culture, and spirituality, i.e. the building blocks of modern day civilization.
Yet even if you find the theory a bit too, well, trippy, there’s enough anthropological evidence of the use of psychedelics by ancient and indigenous peoples to convince even the most ardent rationalist that human history has been in no small way influenced by psychedelics like psilocybin-containing mushrooms.
A Trip South of the Border
The use of psychoactive substances in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican society is well documented, perhaps no more illustratively evidenced than in the name the Aztecs used for psilocybin mushrooms, teotlnanácatl. From the Aztec language Nahuatl, teotlnanácatl is most commonly translated as “flesh of the gods.” Given the name, it’s believed the Mayan and Aztec peoples used psilocybin mushrooms as a conduit to commune with god.
Mushroom stones discovered in ritual contexts throughout much of Mesoamerica date back to 3,000 B.C., further supporting the belief that today’s use of psychedelic mushrooms by shamans and healers in ritual ceremony has its roots in practices thousands of years old.
The Greeks Get Down
Ever wondered how the Greek scholars got so damn smart? According to chemical analyses of ancient beers and wines, it’s believed that our western ancestors were getting more than just a buzz — some wines and beers used in ritualistic contexts may have contained ergot, a fungus that grows on wheat and barley and contains a chemical precursor similar to lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD.
In fact, in the recent New York Time bestselling novel The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name by Brian Muraresku, it’s suggested that a psychedelic substance, possibly ergot, was within a drink consumed in the highly secretive ceremonies at the center of the Mysteries of Eleusis, an ancient Greek cult which existed from around 1500 B.C. to 391 A.D.
The mythology surrounding these ceremonies tell a tale of participants taking part in rituals in which they drank a potion, descended to the underworld, and then rose reborn as children of Demeter. Cicero, Socrates, Plato, Sophocles, Pindar, Plutarch, Marcus Aurelius, and many of the other ‘greats’ of classical civilization attended these shrouded rituals.
This theory isn’t novel or new, either. It’s been suggested for almost a century and Muraresku’s discovery follows in the steps of Patrick McGovern, the scientific director of biochemical archaeology at the University of Pennsylvania, who has used chemical analysis to analyse very ancient beers and wines from around the world. McGovern has proven that the ‘extreme beverages’ of the ancient world had more powerful substances in them than mere alcohol.
Welcome, then Unwelcome, to the West
Given all this ancient history on the use of psychedelics, it’s almost startling that until 1957, when journalist turned banker and amateur mycologist Gordon Wasson penned a Life magazine article titled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom”, modern western society had no knowledge of psychedelic mushrooms and their “vision-giving powers.”
Wasson wrote his history-making article after ingesting psychedelic mushrooms at a velada (healing ceremony) in the hills of Hualta de Jimenez, Mexico, with Mazatec shaman Maria Sabina. It wasn’t long until everyone from hippies to scientists began flooding the small Oaxacan town searching for Sabina and the magic mushrooms promising a glimpse of God.
Simultaneously, Albert Hoffman — famed for being the first man to synthesize and take lysergic acid (LSD) — began working with a sample of psychedelic mushrooms sent to him by Wasson, eventually isolating, synthesizing, and naming psilocybin and psilocin, the main psychoactive compounds in psychedelic mushrooms. The company Hoffman worked for, Sandoz Pharmaceuticals, began producing and selling synthesized psilocybin under the product name Indocybin. Back then, it was marketed and used for psychotherapy purposes.
Eventually, Indocybin ended up in the hands of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, — later known as Baba Ram Dass — two psychology professors at Harvard University who began personally and professionally experimenting with the drug as part of the Harvard Psilocybin Project. Both men later became central figures in the 1960s counterculture and psychedelic movement, the classic slogan of that time, “Tune in, turn on, drop out” the brainchild of Leary. Aldous Huxley, famed author of Brave New World and The Doors of Perception, also took part in the experiments.
Unfortunately, the psychedelic renaissance stalled in the late 1960s when the U.S. government, led by then President Richard Nixon, began clamping down on the rising psychedelic usage characteristic of the 1960s counterculture movement. Psychedelics including psilocybin and psilocin, were ultimately banned in the United States in 1968 and then classified as a Schedule I drug in the federal Controlled Substances Act in 1970. Under the act, Schedule I drugs are substances with no currently accepted medical use, a lack of accepted safety, and a high potential for abuse. It’s worth noting that the spores of psilocybin-containing mushrooms are still legal in most states.
End of an Era
Today, the era of psychedelic prohibition seems to be nearing its conclusion. Public opinion, psychedelic science, and local drug laws are rapidly changing in the wake of a rash of scientific research and study. Prestigious schools like John Hopkins University and the Imperial College of London have demonstrated psilocybin’s efficacy in treating depression in patients, where typical treatments have failed. These findings have been augmented by other studies showing psilocybin’s power to treat addiction and anxiety. Such work culminated in late 2019, when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration designated psilocybin-based medicines as a breakthrough therapy and placed it on a fast track toward approval.
Legally, much has changed over the past two years as Denver (CO), Oakland (CA), Santa Cruz (CA), Ann Arbor (MI), Washington D.C., Somerville (MA), Cambridge (MA) and Northampton (MA) all effectively decriminalized the possession of entheogenic plants and fungi like psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, and ayahuasca for personal use.
Perhaps most strikingly, last November Oregon became the first state in the country to legalize medical psilocybin in therapeutic settings while also decriminalizing small possessions of a host of other substances including cocaine, heroin, ayahuasca, and MDMA.
Suffice to say, it appears a return to our psychedelic roots is upon us. No matter where it leads, we at Troop will be ready to educate, produce, and distribute whatever mushrooms we feel hold the fundamental medicinal properties we believe in once the laws catch up to the science and will of the people.
- Food of the Gods, Terence McKenna
- The Immortality Key: The Secret History of the Religion with No Name, Brian Muraresku