Fungi have ancient origins, with the earliest known species of mushrooms dating back to a billion years ago with the reveal of Ourasphaira giraldae, a fossil species discovered by Palaeobiologist Corentin Loron. But how far back does the use of psychedelic mushrooms go? Could Terrance McKenna’s “Stoned Ape” theory hold premise? It very well could, considering some evidence suggests the use of magic mushrooms dating back to 10,000 B.C.E.
Was Psilocybin the catalyst of Human Evolution?
A recent study in 2019, discovers new evidence that algae may be an ancient ancestor of plants through the use of fungi. The fungi transported the water-living organism to possibly colonize land, over 500 million years ago. Long before Homo Erectus evolved from Africa 2 million years ago.
Considering the versatility of fungi in its ability to grow in some of the most inhabited areas, it isn’t unlikely that primates may have foraged the fungi species for consumption while unknowingly enhancing their cognitive abilities. Which aligns with the history in the growth of the human brain. Some anthropologists speculate that the size of the H. Erectus brain doubled between 2 million and 700,000 thousand years ago. While the brain size of Homo sapiens is have said to increase 3 times larger between 500,000 thousand and 700,000 thousand years ago.
Terrance McKenna, American ethnobotanist, renowned psychedelic advocate and author, expressed this theory in his book, Food of the Gods. McKenna proposed that our African ancestors used magic mushrooms for the visual effects and to aid hunting. He mentions, psilocybin caused the primitive brain to expand in its information processing abilities, stating that early humans “ate (their) way to consciousness”. McKenna argued that the gradual advancements in language, technologies, culture, and spirituality are due to the ingestion of psilocybin as well. Years later, other psychedelic leaders have followed suit. Paul Stamets, American mycologist and founder of Host Defense, a mycelium based fungi company, advocated for the theory and requested it be considered. More research is needed to prove this theory, however, its basis continues to be compelling.
Ancient Therapeutic Use
Magic mushrooms in therapeutic and spiritual use amongst tribal societies have been practiced and documented for hundreds and potentially thousands of years. Studies have shown that the use of psychoactive substances weren’t uncommon in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican societies. Religious use of psychoactive mushrooms has been documented in Siberia, where indigenous tribes are known to drink the hallucinogenic urine from reindeer who have consumed the well-known red and white spotted Amanita Muscaria mushroom. Although, the effects are remarkably different from psilocybin-containing mushrooms due to the dissociative activity produced by the active ingredients muscimol and ibotenic acid.
Additionally, ritualistic psychedelic use in Ancient Greece has been presented through the “The Eleusinian Mysteries”, a “rebirth” rite ceremony using “kykeon”, a psychedelic brew said to be made from ergot fungus and psychedelic mushrooms. The death penalty was the result of exposing these ceremonies, making these transformational healings, and insights to be sworn to secrecy. In celebration of Demeter, the goddess of grain and agriculture, and her daughter Persephone, the god of the Underworld, the ceremonies took place during or after harvest cycles.
The Greeks weren’t the only ones who engaged in sacred mushroom use. Statues, artwork like rock paintings, and the like have been discovered in Mayan and Aztec cultures in Central America in what appears to be representations of hallucinogenic mushrooms. They are said to have used psychedelic mushrooms to communicate with the gods. Mushroom use may also be displayed in their language, where they speak of a substance called teonanácatl, which translates to “flesh of the gods,” that is believed to be in reference to magic mushrooms. While some consider these findings inconclusive, there have been several confirmed uses amongst indigenous peoples in Central America, including the Mixtec, Mazatec, Nashua, and Zapatec.
In the 1950s, R. Gordon Wasson, a banker, and ethnomycologist from New York reported on psilocybin mushroom ceremonies that were said to have been extinct for hundreds of years. The Mazatec, home to the legendary shaman Maria Sabina, is an indigenous group who live in the Oaxaca region of southern Mexico that led Wasson to experience the use of the entheogenic fungi for the first time. After his discovery, Wasson proclaimed that psychedelic mushrooms were the catalyst for humanity’s advancement in language and religion.
Wasson then published, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom”, the first introduction of the term “magic mushroom” to the United States, in Life Magazine. The news spread quickly to psychedelic chemists, like Albert Hofmann and Roger Heim who became intrigued by the effects of psychedelic mushrooms. Heim assisted Wasson in identifying various specimens of mushrooms as species of the Strophariaceae and genus Psilocybe family. By 1958, Hofmann isolated and identified psilocybin and psilocin as the active ingredients found in psychoactive mushrooms. Hofmann then synthesized the compounds and sold them to Sandoz pharmaceuticals.
Hofmann and Heim weren’t the only ones to catch wind of Wasson’s article. Timothy Leary, a well-known psychologist and psychedelic advocate who at the time was a Harvard Professor, gained interest in the psychoactive compound and began traveling to Mexico to participate in the ceremonies. Richard Alpert, or Ram Dass, a renowned spiritual teacher and psychedelic advocate, that joined Leary in his expedition. After both experiencing profound transformation, the two founded the Harvard Psilocybin Project, the famous psilocybin study conducted on Harvard graduate students. Although psilocybin was legal at the time, due to concerns regarding ethics, safety regulations, and substance abuse, the project saw it’s end in 1963.
Shortly after, Terrance Mckenna and his brother Dennis traveled to the Columbian Amazon in search of DMT. Alternatively, they stubbled upon Psilocybe cubensis, a psilocybin-containing mushroom. Proceeding this journey, the brothers wrote publications on the cultivation of magic mushrooms which led to the widespread access of psychedelic mushrooms in the United States.
Potentially Making History
Due to the 1960s counterculture, the use of psychedelic drugs increased dramatically until they were ultimately banned in the 1970s with Richard Nixon’s launch of the “war on drugs”. Although not every stone was left unturned as the psilocybin molecule was banned however the spores remained federally legal. This is due to spores not inherently containing psilocybin, though, they do have the capacity to produce organisms that contain psilocybin. Moreover, psilocybin remains legal in a variety of counties like Jamaica and Brazil.
These days, magic mushrooms are making a comeback and culture is becoming more accepting of these psychedelic fungi. In 1997, the first post-war psilocybin study was conducted which prompted several more institutions to follow suit. In 2018, the FDA granted Compass Pathways permission to study psilocybin mushrooms as a treatment for depression. In 2019, John Hopkins revealed its Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. The University of Toronto, the Heffter Insititute, and the Beckley Foundation are all contributing to the growing amount of research surrounding the benefits of psilocybin. These studies have pushed the decriminalization movement of psychotropic substances into action. Ballot initiatives are in progress in several cities while Denver, Oakland, and Santa Cruz have already decriminalized magic mushrooms.
Although psilocybin is still a schedule I drug, making it currently illegal in most countries, decriminalization and legalization initiatives show promise in the future of entheogens. As more research continues to unfold, each day we are potentially taking a step forward in making history in the progression and understanding of psychedelic mushrooms.
Freeman, Shanna, and Nathan Chandler. “How Magic Mushrooms Work.” HowStuffWorks Science, HowStuffWorks, 28 May 2020, science.howstuffworks.com/magic-mushroom6.htm.
Greg, et al. “Did Shamans Really Drink Reindeer Urine?” The Daily Grail, 23 May 2018, www.dailygrail.com/2012/09/taking-the-pss-did-shamans-really-drink-reindeer-urine/. says, David Price, et al. “Guide to Psilocybin Mushrooms – Experience, Benefits, & Side Effects.”