The history of psychedelics is rich, varied, and fascinating.
Psychedelics are substances thats have been considered sacred by members of many cultures, while demonized by members of others and subsequently made illegal.
In this article, we will explore the history of psychedelics from ancient times to the recent present, describing the many interesting plants, mushrooms, and chemicals that have made an indelible mark on religion, culture, science, and politics.
First, let’s begin by examining the very first evidence of psychedelic use and the use of psychedelics by ancient cultures.
History of Psychedelics: Ancient Use of Psychedelics
The earliest evidence of psychedelic use can be found in a cave in the Tassili-N-Ajjer region of the Sahara desert, Algeria[*].
In this cave is a mural depicting what is referred to as the ‘mushroom man’ or ‘mushroom shaman’, a bee-headed figure with mushrooms sprouting out of his body; mushrooms identified as Psilocybe mairei. These are psychedelic mushrooms native to the region. The mural is 7,000 to 9,000 years old.
Another early piece of evidence of possible psychedelic use comes from the Selva Pascuala mural in a cave near Villar del Humo, Spain[*]. The mural features mushrooms that researchers believe to be Psilocybe hispanica, a local species of psychedelic mushroom. This mural is 6,000 years old.
The researchers who discovered the specimens, dating back to 3,700 BC, said[*]:
“The identification of mescaline strengthens the evidence that native North Americans recognized the psychotropic properties of peyote as long as 5700 years ago.”
Meanwhile, the use of the San Pedro cactus (which also contains mescaline) is more than 3,000 years old in Peru[*].
In northern Peru, a stone carving of a deity – dating from 1,300 BC – shows this god holding the San Pedro cactus.
In 2019, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences describes the discovery of a 1,000-year-old shaman’s pouch containing multiple psychedelics, including bufotenin and DMT[*]. The pouch originates from southwestern Bolivia and also includes snuffing tablets (used to crush plants into a snuff) and a snuffing tube, most likely used to snort the prepared drug. Interestingly, the pouch contained harmine which can be combined with DMT to achieve psychedelic effects. Researchers say it is likely this shaman took these substances together, either as snuff or through a beverage like ayahuasca.
While this study shows the possible use of ayahuasca 1,000 years ago, the researcher Dennis McKenna points out there isn’t data showing exactly how far back ayahuasca use dates. Many natives, however, believe that the ceremonial use of this tea is thousands of years old.
Western Discovery of Psychedelics
It was some time before Westerners discovered the use of psychedelics among different cultures. Such discoveries were first made by European explorers who sailed to Latin America. Here is a timeline of some of the most famous discoveries:
- In 1496, Friar Ramon Pane, who accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second journey to the Americas, noted how the Taino people of Haiti/Dominican Republic would consume a psychoactive snuff called cohoba/yopo[*]. This snuff is made from Anadenanthera peregrina, a type of shrub that contains DMT and 5-MeO-DMT.
- In 1560, Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish missionary priest, wrote in his Florentine Codex about how the Aztecs were using peyote and psychedelic mushrooms (Psilocybe mexicana)[*].
- From 1570-1575, Francisco Hernández, a Spanish conquistador, carried out investigations in Mexico and discovered the use of ololiuqui by the Aztecs[*]. This is a species of morning glory, a plant the seeds of which contain LSA.
- In 1591, the Spanish physician Juan de Cárdenas described the use of peyote in the Indies[*].
- In 1851, English ethnobotanist Richard Spruce was exploring the Amazon and observed that the Tukano Indians of the Rio Uapes in Brazil were drinking the visionary brew ayahuasca[*].
- In 1864, French physician Griffon du Bellay reported the use of iboga root (which contains ibogaine) in Gabon and the Congo[*].
Western Use of Psychedelics
When it comes to the Western history of psychedelics, some Westerners intentionally ingested these substances to see what their effects were, whereas others had psychedelic experiences by accident. Here are some notable examples of Westerners using psychedelics:
- In 1799, the first psychedelic mushroom experience in London took place. A father went to gather field mushrooms for his family to eat, as he usually did, but it turned out he picked the psychedelic kind as well, specifically Psilocybe semilanceata[*].
- Spruce, who in 1851 discovered ayahuasca, also drank a small amount of the brew.
- In 1858, geographer Manuel Villavicencio published Geografia de la Republica del Ecuador, in which he described his experience with ayahuasca[*].
- In 1887, Dr. J.R. Briggs published an article about his self-experimentation with peyote[*].
- In 1893, Quanah Parker, chief of the Comanches, gave 50 pounds of dried buttons to James Mooney, an ethnologist with the Smithsonian Institution. He supplied the peyote to psychologist William James and physician Weir Mitchell who experimented with the psychedelic cactus.
- In 1897, the pharmacologist Arthur Heffter consumed 150mg of mescaline hydrochloride that he had isolated[*]. This was the very first experience with a purified psychedelic substance.
- In 1914, Science magazine published a firsthand account of a man, by the name of Mr. W, who ingested psilocybin mushrooms[*].
- In 1938, anthropologist Jean Basset Johnson and his wife Irmgard Weitlaner participated in a mushroom ceremony in Huatla, Mexico[*].
- In 1943, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann took 250 micrograms of LSD, which he had created[*].
- In 1953, the writer William S. Burroughs wrote a letter to poet and friend Allen Ginsberg about his experience of drinking ayahuasca in the Amazon[*]. This same year, the writer Aldous Huxley ingested 400mg of mescaline under the supervision of psychiatrist Humphry Osmond. He would later recount his experience with this substance in The Doors of Perception (1954).
- In 1955, then vice president of J.P. Morgan R. Gordon Wasson participated in a mushroom ceremony in Oaxaca, Mexico, under the supervision of María Sabina (also known as the ‘priestess of mushrooms’)[*]. Wasson famously recounted his experiences in an article title Seeking the Magic Mushroom, published in Life magazine in 1957.
- In 1956, the psychiatrist Stanislav Grof had his first experience with LSD, ingesting 250 micrograms of the compound[*]. The same year, the chemist Stephen Szára injected himself with DMT and was the first person to describe its psychedelic effects.
- In 1959, the philosopher Alan Watts tried LSD and reported having a mystical experience[*].
By the 1960s, underground chemists – such as Leonard William Pickard, Nick Sand, and Owsley Stanley – started to manufacture LSD and distribute them to the general public. These chemists produced millions of doses of the compound[*].
The Early Science of Psychedelics
Following the discovery of psychedelic plants and mushrooms by Westerners, scientists soon started to study them, including their chemical compounds, effects, and therapeutic applications. Here are some of the key events first involving scientists in the history of psychedelics:
- In 1889, the botanist Henri Baillon gave the first botanical description of Tabernanthe iboga at the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris[*].
- In 1894, the botanist John Coulter classified the peyote cactus as Lophophora williamsii[*].
- 1895 saw the first scientific trial involving peyote in Washington, DC at Columbian University (now George Washington University)[*].
- In 1901, the biologist Jean Dybowski first isolated ibogaine (which he named) from Tabernanthe iboga[*].
- In 1904, the mycologist Franklin Sumner Earle was the first person to identify Psilocybe cubensis in Cuba[*].
- In 1912, Anton Köllisch, a German chemist, became the first person to synthesize MDMA[*].
- In 1919, Ernst Spath synthesizes mescaline[*].
- In 1931, Richard Manske, a Canadian chemist, is the first to synthesize DMT (which he called ‘nigerine’)[*].
- In 1938, Hofmann first synthesizes LSD[*].
- In 1947, Sandoz Laboratories markets LSD under the brand name Delysid and distributes it to psychiatrists in the belief it could help them better understand schizophrenia[*].
- In 1949, the psychiatrist Max Rinkel carried out the first LSD experiment in the US, giving the substance to 100 volunteers at the Boston Psychopathic Institute[*]. He believes the effects of the drug mimicked schizophrenic psychosis. For this reason, Rinkel and his colleague Paul Hoch would later call LSD a ‘psychotomimetic’ (a madness-mimicking agent).
- In 1952, Charles Savage published the first study looking at LSD as a treatment for depression[*]. That same year, Osmond was treating alcoholism with LSD[*].
- In 1953, Ronald Sandison opens the first LSD clinic in England[*]
- In 1954, the psychiatrist Oscar Janiger begins administering LSD to patients[*]
- In 1958, Hofmann isolates and figures out the structure of psilocybin and psilocin, the two psychoactive compounds in magic mushrooms[*].
- Between 1960 and 1967, Grof carried out more than 4,000 LSD-assisted therapy sessions[*].
Since their discovery, scientists had free reign to study psychedelics. Drugs like LSD eventually made their way onto the streets, while remaining legal.
However, it was when psychedelics entered the public realm and popular culture that the law surrounding their production, sale, and possession started to change.
The Prohibition of Psychedelics
Following the widespread use of psychedelics in mainstream society in the early and mid-60s, bans on specific psychedelic substances started to be introduced. Later, we would see the prohibition of pretty much all psychedelics.
Here are some crucial legal developments that took place in the history of psychedelics:
- In 1966, the public use and sale of peyote, mescaline, LSD, and DMT were prohibited in the US[*].
- In 1970, LSD, DMT, MDA, psilocybin, psilocin, mescaline, peyote, and cannabis became Schedule I drugs under the United States Controlled Substances Act[*]. This meant, in terms of the law, psychedelics had no recognized medical value and a high potential for abuse[*].
For nearly two decades, extensive research was carried out on psychedelics and their effects on the mind and psychological well-being. Following the 1970 legislation in the US (and similar prohibitions elsewhere), however, the scientific study of psychedelics was ground to a halt.
This marked a turning point in the history of psychedelics, for we wouldn’t see the return of sanctioned research into psychedelics for another two decades.
The Psychedelic Renaissance
The ‘psychedelic renaissance’ refers to the resurgence of government-approved studies about psychedelic substances, as well as their growing popularity in mainstream society once again.
Here are some of the interesting experiments with psychedelics carried out form the 90s onwards:
- Between 1990 and 1995, the psychiatrist Rick Strassman administered DMT to 60 volunteers and recorded the subjective effects[*]. His findings were later published in his book DMT: The Spirit Molecule (1991).
- In 1998, the Swiss neuroscientist Franz Vollenweider discovered that LSD and psilocybin achieve their effects by binding with the brain’s 5-HT2A receptor[*].
- In 1999, Dr. Roland Griffiths set up a research program at Johns Hopkins University to study the effects of psilocybin[*].
- In 2006, Griffiths publishes his landmark paper showing that psilocybin can induce highly meaningful mystical experiences[*]. Other research published this year showed LSD and psilocybin could lessen both the intensity and frequency of cluster headaches[*].
- In 2009, Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris carried out the first clinical study of psilocybin in the UK. This was also the first clinical study of a psychedelic in the UK in 40 years[*].
- In 2011, Charles Grob published research showing that psilocybin was effective at reducing anxiety in patients with advanced cancer[*]. Another study demonstrated that MDMA was a safe and effective drug for improving treatment-resistant post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)[*].
- In 2014, Carhart-Harris showed in a study, by means of brain scans, that psilocybin increases communication between areas of the brain that don’t normally communicate with each other[*].
- In 2016, Carhart-Harris and a team of researchers published images (from brain scans) of how LSD affects the brain[*].
- A 2018 study illustrates that ayahuasca leads to significant decreases in symptoms of depression[*].
- In 2019, Imperial College London launches the world’s first Centre for Psychedelics Research[*]. Some months later, Johns Hopkins launches its own, the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research[*]. Both centers are carrying out research into what psychedelics reveal about consciousness and how these compounds can help treat conditions such as depression, addiction, and PTSD.
As we can see, the history of psychedelics is long and intriguing, full of twists and turns, and fascinating discoveries.
With research continuing into these substances and prohibitions gradually being relaxed, we will continue to see historic moments with psychedelics occur in our lifetime.