Drug use in the Bronze Age

The Bronze Age saw the emergence of many early civilizations which began to explore the role of drug use as a part of their daily lives. The Bronze Age was an age of rapid cultural expansion and therefore an increasingly varied range of methods for using drugs for elaborate religious rituals, medicinal treatment, and social gatherings.

How was it found out? By an analysis of human hair strands from a burial site in Menorca. It would prove that there was drug use in the Bronze Age. The findings were published in Scientific Reports.

They constitute the first direct evidence of ancient drug use in Europe. They could have been used as part of ritual ceremonies, the researchers note. Previous evidence was based on indirect indications. Opium alkaloids had been detected in Bronze Age vessels. Also, narcotic plants in ritual contexts.

Confirmation was obtained after hair analysis.
Confirmation was obtained after performing hair analysis.

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Hair analysis

Researcher Elisa Guerra-Doce and colleagues examined strands of hair from the Es Càrritx cave in Menorca. It was first occupied about 3,600 years ago. Some 210 individuals were buried in this chamber. Some were placed in wooden and horn vessels decorated with concentric circles. And they were moved to a separate sealed chamber located further back in the cave. These hairs date to about 3,000 years ago.

The authors used ultra-high performance liquid chromatography. And they were able to detect the presence of the alkaloids atropine, scopolamine and ephedrine. Atropine and scopolamine occur naturally in the nightshade family. They can cause delirium, hallucinations and altered sensory perception. Ephedrine is a stimulant derived from certain species of shrubs and pines. All this was in three replicate hair samples.

Confirmation was obtained after performing hair analysis.
Confirmation was obtained after performing hair analysis.


The presence of these alkaloids may be due to the consumption of some plants of the Solanaceae. For example, mandrake, henbane or thorn apple.

Researchers believe that these medicinal plants were used as part of ritual ceremonies performed by a shaman. The concentric circles on the wooden vessels may represent eyes. As a metaphor for inner vision related to an altered state of consciousness. Of course, caused by Bronze Age drug use.

Many cultural changes occurred about 2,800 years ago. There is speculation about the practice of using the wooden vessels. Perhaps they were sealed in the cave chamber to preserve these ancient traditions.

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