Psychoactive substances are known to humanity since times immemorial – and quite a few of these archaic intoxicants are still around today. Here is a list of drugs that were first discovered in the ancient times that most people have never even heard about.
Judging from the media reports, one would think that marijuana, cocaine and a couple more psychoactive agents are the only drugs in existence. These well-known illegal substances are undeniably the most popular, but that hardly means no alternatives are available. In fact, there are dozens (if not hundreds) of drugs that you don’t hear about every day, even if they had been traditionally used in some parts of the world for a very long time and had become deeply ingrained in the social fabric of those communities.
Let’s examine some of those substances and their roles in the societies where their use has been prevalent, as well as their status in the present age:
This mild stimulant may not be widely available in the Western world, but for people living in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, it is just as common as coffee or alcohol are for us. Khat is a part of the local culture in Yemen, Somalia and a handful of nearby countries, where it’s not illegal to possess or sell and a large part of the population casually indulges in it on a daily level. It is produced from a flowering plant that grows in the wild throughout this area and has been cultivated in an organised manner for thousands of years. Its main active ingredient is cathinone, which is a monoamine alkaloid with psychotropic effects not unlike those of amphetamine, although not nearly as powerful.
However, khat can be addictive and cause strong psychological dependence, which is why numerous countries including U.S.A. and Germany outlawed it. Despite its widespread popularity in the home region, very few people from the rest of the world pay attention to khat – or even know much about it.
Another naturally occurring drug that came from the African continent, ibogaine can be found in several plants, such as Tabernathe iboga and Voacanga Africana. It can be described as an indole alkaloid with very strong psychedelic effects lasting between 4 and 6 hours, and it is generally classified as a tryptamine-based hallucinogen. Side effects typically include dry mouth and nausea, but research has demonstrated that its neurotoxicity is very low. Numerous tribes have ingested this substance for ritual reasons long before it was noticed by modern science, usually in the form of finely ground plant material.
During the mid-20th century, ibogaine came into focus of Western psychology because it was believed it could be beneficial for combating addiction to other substances, but research was discontinued before it could provide any definitive answers. Like with many other natural psychedelics, there are still quite a few secrets about true properties of ibogaine left to be explained and it would be a welcome surprise if this happens in the near future.
Anyone who visits Southeast Asia has a good chance to encounter this peculiar drug, as it is widely used in several countries in the region, from India and Pakistan in the west to Philippines and Indonesia in the Pacific Ocean. It is usually sold in the streets under the name paan, which is actually a mixture of two plants – nuts of the areca palm are combined with betel leaves for maximum effect, although tobacco is sometimes used with it as well. This combination can be chewed to produce a mild feeling of euphoria and excitement, placing the drug in the stimulant category. The main problem with it is that it’s highly cancerogenic and causes visible deterioration (along with red coloration) of the mouth in chronic users, which is why some of the countries where its use is customary would like to kerb it. Such attempts have generally been unsuccessful since its low price and easy availability makes it a popular choice among all classes of the society. Asian emigrants have carried the habit of chewing betel across the world, so this drug can sometimes be found on all continents.
Known under many names and used since the antiquity across Eurasia, Hyoscyamus niger is a plant that has been harvested for its psychoactive properties and other purposes, including as a medicine and flavouring for beer and wine. Its dried leaves and seeds are rich in tropane alkaloids, with most powerful among those being hyoscyamine and scopolamine. It causes stimulation of the central nervous system followed by intense hallucination that usually lasts between 3 and 4 hours, although after-effects can linger for several days. The plant is highly toxic to most animals (hence the popular name) as well as to humans, and dosage is a very tricky matter. Recorded instances of historical use occurred from Greece to China, while today it can still be found in pharmacies in many Third World countries.
The plant is quite rare and hasn’t been legally restricted practically anywhere, probably because it doesn’t have too many modern users in any part of the world.
Datura stramonium is a bushy plant characteristic for its unpleasant smell that grows all around the world, although it is believed to originate from Mexico. It has been a part of folk medicine for a long time, but it should be properly defined as a potent dissociative deliriant. Popularly called jimsonweed or devil’s snare (among other colourful names), it contains several tropane alkaloids responsible for the psychoactive effects, namely atropine and scopolamine.
The effects are marked by intensive and usually frightening hallucinations that can continue uninterrupted for several days, with the user typically having no recollection of his bizarre behaviour afterwards. It can be deadly when too high doses are consumed and has often been associated with self-harm of serious proportions. However, several North American tribes have been known to use it for spiritual purposes, while certain sects in India consider it sacred.
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