What Was the First Recreational Drug?

By Daniel Kolitz on at

Sex, war, and getting insanely high: Society might have changed in the last 60,000 years or so, but these interests have remained constant. In a way, this is a kind of golden age for the aspiring recreational drug user: putting aside the public health consequences of a market flooded with mass-produced speed, painkillers and anti-anxiety meds, and putting aside as well the cost (in terms of cartel violence, punitive War on Drugs sentencing measures, etc.) of our country’s readily accessible store of coke, heroin, MDMA, weed, and experimental Chinese research chemicals, the fact remains that there are more options out there than ever for those who’re looking to get (responsibly!) fucked up.

Our ancient-history counterparts weren’t so lucky (if “lucky” is the right word, for what we’ve got going here). They didn’t have teams of highly funded researches synthesising new sensations, as we have for over a hundred years now; like teens in a small town, they took what they could find. But what, exactly, did they find? For this week’s Giz Asks, we reached out to a number of historians specialising in drug history to figure out the very first substance to ever be abused (vs. taken medicinally). As it turns out, people have been getting high since basically the dawn of time. So the next time you do a bunch of drugs and start freaking out, just know that you’re connected to a rich intercontinental tradition going back tens of thousands of years.

Phil Withington

Professor, History, University of Sheffield, and one of the world’s leading historians of intoxicants and intoxication

My own work on intoxicants in medieval and early modern Europe (the last 1,000 years) makes it very clear that foodstuffs and drinks ostensibly valued for their nutritional and medicinal properties were also consumed for their psychoactive effects, and in relation to many different kinds of sociability.

But if we take a broad view of ‘recreational’ to denote consumption that is not simply necessary for survival, then this is merely scratching the chronological surface. Just as classicists have reminded us that the foundational institution of western civilisation—the Greek symposium—was to all intents and purposes a ritualised drinking bout, so archaeologists tell us that psychoactive substances have been prepared and taken from the very earliest times of Homo existence. There is archaeobotanical evidence of the consumption of Ephedra and Cannabis in Neolithic and Bronze Age Europe (around 12,000 years ago); of entoptic imagery in Upper Palaeolithic artwork (produced during altered states of consciousness) (around 40,000 years ago); and fragmentary evidence of fermentation in the deep history of hominid consumption.

“Our primate ancestors enjoyed the dizzying, physiological effects of fermented fruits for tens of millions of years.”

Ryan Riley

Graduate Student Researcher at North Carolina State University who studies the history and anthropology of ancient pharmacology with a specific emphasis on psychotropic substances

While there are a myriad of ways to interpret the term “recreational drug,” the obvious candidate for the oldest recreational drug used by humans is alcohol. Not only is ethanol (alcohol) still a substance that is enjoyed widely as a recreational inebriate in the modern day, but it has been proposed that our primate ancestors enjoyed the dizzying, physiological effects of fermented fruits for tens of millions of years. Investigations of Natufian stone objects in 2018 have confirmed the existence of the oldest, man-made alcoholic beverages dating approximately from 11,700 - 13,700 years ago and the residue analysis of “vessels” at Gobekli Tepe (ca. 9000 BCE) suggests a high likelihood that alcohol was an important staple in the functionary practices of the site.

However, the kindred relationship between hominid species and the natural world of plants and fungi certainly entails a complex array of psychoactive substances. I would nominate the species Ephedra as another candidate for the world’s oldest recreational drug. Pollen of Ephedra altissima was discovered in a 60,000-year-old Neanderthal burial at the Shanidar IV cave site in northern Iraq. Even today, Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest religions, regards the stimulating effects of Ephedra as an essential part of their religious practices. While still highly contested within the field of psychotropica, the mythical, Indo-Iranian beverage haoma/soma, may very well have been comprised of Ephedra, but some opponents argue that the Amanita muscaria mushroom is probable. After all, the varying gradations of psilocybin containing “magic mushrooms” may have been a major contributing catalyst for the evolution of the modern human brain itself!

“One of the earliest recorded examples of the religious use of drugs is a substance that is called ‘soma’ in the the Vedic literature of Hinduism or ‘haoma’ in the sacred literature of Zoroastrianism.”

Pierce Salguero

Associate Professor, Asian History and Religion Studies, Penn State Abington, with a scholarly emphasis on the history of medicine in Asia, among other things

Looking comparatively across ancient cultures, one of the most significant uses of mind-altering substances was to induce religious or spiritual states. These drugs were more than merely recreational; they were ways of communicating with deities, travelling to other dimensions, or experiencing the true nature of reality.

One of the earliest recorded examples of the religious use of drugs is a substance that is called “soma” in the the Vedic literature of Hinduism or “haoma” in the sacred literature of Zoroastrianism. A drink made from soma-haoma bestowed alertness, strength, virility, insight, healing, and even immortality when it was drunk in ritual settings. In the Vedas, soma was considered the elixir of the gods, and it also became the name of the deity of the moon in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.

As these religious texts were composed nearly 4,000 years ago, the specific identities of the plant or plants that were used to make this drink have long been forgotten. However, this subject has garnered much scholarly dispute. Candidates for soma-haoma that have been proposed by scholars have included honey, opium, cannabis, and hallucinogenic mushrooms. The most likely candidate is ephedra, and modern Zoroastrian priests still prepare a ritual drink called haoma using ephedra or related plants.

“Just the idea that you’d sit around and take drugs... apart from alcohol... it would be more of a 19th century kind of idea.”

Richard Miller

Professor, Pharmacology, Northwestern University and the author of Drugged: The Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs

Psychotropic drugs have been used for thousands of years. We know, for example, that hallucinogenic mushrooms have been used in ancient Siberia, and also in Central and South America, for thousands of years. And we know that opium has been used for a very long time.

But we only really know what things were used for once people start writing. Writing started around 2,500 BC in Mesopotamia, and even they were talking about opium—they called it a “joy plant.” We also find information in writing by the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, and so on.

We know cannabis was used for a long time. If you look at the ancient writings of Hinduism or Zoroastrianism you find information about cannabis. Nicotine—well, we don’t know a lot about what was going on in the Americas because they hadn’t been “discovered,” but there’s very good evidence that starting in South America and then working its way up into Central America nicotine was also used for a very long time.

But these drugs weren’t used recreationally. We know that most of the reasons these drugs were used were for religious purposes—shamanism by witch doctors, for instance.

The whole idea of recreational drug-taking didn’t really start until the 19th century. That really started with things like Romanticism—books like The Confessions of an English Opium Eater by de Quincey, in the beginning of the 19th century.

The one outlier of all of this is alcohol. Alcohol probably was used for recreational purposes way back—it has been used as a recreational drug for probably thousands of years. But in Europe and the West, it wasn’t until the 19th century that real recreational drug-taking started off. Just the idea that you’d sit around and take drugs—I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but apart from alcohol, which was definitely used, it would be more of a 19th century kind of idea.

Scott Fitzpatrick

Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon

That’s a tough question to answer, given that all psychoactive substances are organic, and most don’t preserve well in the archaeological record (except under exceptional circumstances), or require humans to describe them in some way using preservable materials like pottery or stone.

But if I were to make an educated guess, I would probably say that it was ethanol. Most psychoactive substances are environmentally and/or geographically restricted, with many having been translocated to different parts of the world in the recent past (e.g., coca, opium, marijuana, kava, tobacco, DMT snuffing powders, peyote, betel nut). And all of these were used, as far as we know, for ritual purposes for long periods of time and only recently became accessible enough to be used recreationally.

Ethanol on the other hand, can be made from many different substances (e.g., grains, tubers, drupes, fruit) that are commonly found worldwide and can occur naturally without human intervention (e.g., fermenting fruit). It is also seemingly used, according to archaeological and historical records, very early in the form of beer in Sumeria and wine in Egypt and across the circum-Mediterranean thousands of years ago and used recreationally, not ritually. The technologies and knowledge for producing alcohol in various forms also seems to have spread pretty quickly once it was established.

I think it is quite possible that some people in the past used substances other than alcohol recreationally, but the vast majority seem to have been used ritually, medicinally, or for other purposes that were not recreational until more recently in time. So I would put my money on alcohol!

“It depends entirely on what you mean by ‘recreational’ and ‘drug.’”

Mark Peterson

Professor, History, Yale University

It depends entirely on what you mean by “recreational” and “drug.” But from the earliest records of human experience, there is evidence of the use of fermentation of various kinds of foods—fruits and grains, mostly—to create alcohol for consumption. Recreation suggests a particular kind of purpose or experience, and that’s where it gets tricky, because one of the obvious purposes of fermentation or distillation is that it preserves calories for future consumption that would otherwise spoil, whether it’s making apples into hard cider, or grain into beer or liquor. Does the fact that consuming it also generates some degree of intoxication make it recreational? That’s much harder to say.

But with alcohol, a case could be made that the cheap gin craze that hits London and England in the 18th century marks a pretty clear instance where drinking gin is not about consuming preserved calories, but about getting high. This is exactly the point made by the artist William Hogarth in his twin prints from 1751, ‘Beer Street’ and ‘Gin Lane,’ showing beer-drinking to be a source of prosperity and good fortune, against gin as a source of poverty, depravity, despair, and death—perhaps not the best definition of “recreation,” but certainly not utilitarian.

An argument could be made for tobacco, where archaeological evidence from various places in the Americas suggest its usage going back at least three or four thousand years. Tobacco was clearly used in social circumstances, and unlike alcohol, it’s certainly not about calories—you don’t need tobacco to survive. And yet it also seems to be the case that tobacco’s cultural usage tended toward diplomacy and ceremony. The offering of a tobacco pipe could be used, as in the eastern North American “calumet,” as a way to initiate diplomacy during war, or to provide a traveller with safe passage through a particular territory, social functions that don’t exactly equate with “recreation.” Early Europeans who encountered tobacco believed it to have medicinal effects, consistent with their understanding of humoral medicine, so that too doesn’t entirely square with recreation. But as its popularity grew and humoral theories of medicine receded, tobacco clearly became a recreational drug for Europeans. So perhaps the removal of a psycho-active substance from the context in which it originally served a useful purpose has something to do with the emergence of a “recreational” drug.

Featured image: Illustration: Angelica Alzona (Gizmodo)