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A Brief History of Shrooms

Psilocybin from 10,000 B.C.E. to the present day to the future.

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This story originally appeared on Double Blind Magazine

Pre-History

The use of mind-altering mushrooms has pervaded human society since long prior to the birth of civilization approximately 6000 years ago, and potentially even multiple hundreds of thousands of years into antiquity. The earliest concrete evidence consists of rock etched murals depicting mushroom iconography found in Northern Australia, where archaeologists and geologists suggest that the psychedelic-themed illustrations date back to 10,000 B.C.E. While there is no hard evidence supporting earlier use, it’s logical to assume humans have consumed psychoactive fungi since homo sapiens became evolutionarily distinct.

This premise is logical for two reasons: 

Firstly, many other species actively seek out and consume psychoactive substances, such as the reindeer of Siberia and North America that eat Amanita Muscaria mushrooms, dolphins that ingest the psychotropic venom of pufferfish, and jaguars that consume the vine, root and leaf of the hallucinogenic Caape plant.

Secondly, Psilocybe mushrooms are common on every inhabitable continent, and therefore early hominids venturing out of the jungle onto the savanna and beyond surely saw and likely consumed them, unwittingly achieved an evolutionary advantage through the heightened state of awareness brought about by the fungi.

Psilocybin (the active compound in psilocybe mushrooms) has been shown by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to create a state of hyperconnectivity between brain networks, foster an increase in neurogenesis (the creation of brain cells), and drastically alter thought pathways. The culmination of these effects may have allowed early hominids who ingested Psilocybe mushrooms to “think outside the box,” and share deeper connection to and communications with those around them. These assumptions linking shrooms to expedited human evolution are central components of the “Stoned Ape Hypothesis,” put forth by legendary ethnobotanist and psychonaut Terence McKenna. This theory postulates that, along with many other factors (like cooking with fire), mushrooms were the catalyst for a doubling of human brain size in (from an evolutionary perspective) an extremely short period. Mckenna argues that over the course of time, ingesting psilocybin occasioned both technological advancements and the genesis of evolutionarily advantageous ideas like language, religion, spirituality, and cultural tradition.

RELATED: How to Harvest Mushrooms

Ancient History

Returning to the (comparatively) recent past, it has been repeatedly documented that tribal societies across the globe revere psychedelic mushrooms and have used them in spiritual and therapeutic contexts for millennia

Various forms of indigenous Central American artwork indicate that they thought these mushrooms were a means of communicating with the gods, while their nomenclature gives even more evidence of this. The Nahuatl language used by the Maya and Aztec peoples named these mushrooms Teonanácatl, which literally translates to “flesh of the gods.” Many religious myths of the Aztecs, Maya, and Toltecs are rife with mention of mushrooms, even stating that they were given to distant ancestors by the serpent god Quetzocoatl, who was worshipped as the creator of life by all of these cultures.

Indigenous tribes in Siberia also ritualized a hallucinogenic mushroom, the same red and white spotted Amanita Muscaria that reindeer commonly consume. These cultures were and still are known to collect and drink the psychoactive urine of these reindeer. This mushroom produces effects markedly different from those of the Psilocybe genus, and unlike Mesoamerican use of Psilocybe for solely divinatory purposes, Musciaria also had practical applications. Siberians utilized the altered state of consciousness evoked by the Amanita to exceed “normal” physical capacity, and endure inhospitable temperatures through the disassociative effects of muscimol (the active compound in Amanita Muscaria mushrooms). 

It wasn’t only tribal peoples who engaged in the use of psychedelic fungi: Philosophically and scientifically advanced ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks all left evidence suggesting that they too had fondness for psychedelics.

In Ancient Greece, cults worshipping the goddess Demeter held ritual ceremonies involving the use of a psychoactive brew that possibly contained Ergot fungus (what LSD is derived from), Psilocybe mushrooms, and Amanita Muscaria mushrooms—which undoubtedly made for an intensely powerful experience. These ceremonies, colloquially known as “The Eleusinian Mysteries,” were shrouded in secrecy, at the time bearing the death penalty for exposing knowledge gained during the rituals. This severe penalty made the ceremonies somewhat exclusive, often attended by members of the upper-class and preeminent scholars, artists and philosophers like Plato, Homer, and Aristotle.

The Egyptians, similar to Mesoamerican societies, created numerous forms of artwork depicting mushrooms, and had vernacular terms for the psychoactive varieties translating to “sons of the gods” or “food of the gods.” They believed that, since mushrooms do not sprout from a seed, they were placed on earth by the god Osiris; therefore their consumption was limited to the priesthood and upper classes (who were also thought to be descended from the gods). It has even been theorized by Egyptologist Stephen Berlant that ancient Egyptians cultivated these mushrooms on barley grain, showing how culturally and spiritually significant their use was.

RELATED: Navigating Psychedelic Voyages

Modern History

The earliest reliable documentation (from within “western” civilization) regarding mushroom intoxication occurred in 1799, and involved a british family, who unknowingly picked several Psilocybe Semilanceata (Liberty Caps) from the shores of the Thames river, cooked a meal with them, and soon after experienced the typical effects of pupil dilation, hysteria, and euphoria. This spurred the taxonomic classification in 1803 of a new species—first named Agaricus Semilanceatus, and then changed in 1871 to Psilocybe Semilanceata. 

The term “magic mushrooms” was introduced nearly 100 years later in a 1957 Life Magazine exposé entitled “Seeking the Magic Mushroom.” The piece was written by banker and hobby mycologist R. Gordon Wasson, who in 1955, along with his wife Valeria, became among the first “westerners” allowed to participate in an indigenous mushroom ceremony, guided by the famous shaman Maria Sabina. Their experience took place in the small village of Huautla de Jiménez in Oaxaca Mexico, and profoundly affected Gordon, who went to great lengths publicizing it. News quickly proliferated and attracted the attention of figures like Albert Hoffman (the chemist most famous for discovering LSD) and Roger Heim (the mycologist who confirmed from samples Wasson sent him that the mushrooms were Psilocybe Cubensis). By 1958 Hoffman (who also received samples) had successfully isolated and identified the compounds psilocybin and psilocin as active ingredients, and produced synthetic versions of both compounds, which were sold by Sandoz Pharmaceuticals under the name Indocybin.

The popular Life article also piqued the interest of Harvard professor Timothy Leary, who was inspired to travel deep into the Mazatepec region of Mexico and experience these mushrooms for himself. Upon returning to Harvard, and with the help of Richard Alpert (who later underwent a spiritual awakening and became known as Ram Dass) founded the infamous Harvard Psilocybin Project. Due to their personal experiences with the compound, Leary and Alpert had high aspirations for psilocybin, believing that it could solve the emotional problems of “the western man.” Legal at the time, this project acquired pharmaceutical grade psilocybin from Sandoz and used it to conduct a number of experiments; from administering to prison inmates in an attempt to reduce recidivism, to dosing Harvard students in an attempt to elicit a divinatory or spiritually significant experience (which almost all of the subjects had).

Although the project had ethical motivations and honorable intentions, there were many concerns regarding safety, administration protocols, and abuse of power over students (graduate students in Leary’s classes were pressured to participate). These concerns were aggravated in early 1962 when a student had to be sedated during a negative psilocybin experience, and culminated on March 14, 1962 during an internal meeting of Harvard professors, which was arguably more of a trial for Leary and Alpert. The pair were accused of abusing the substances they were researching and reprimanded, but were allowed to continue research on the condition that they (Leary and Alpert) remained sober. In the spring of 1963 Leary and Alpert were caught giving psychedelics to undergraduates—despite that only graduate students were allowed to participate in the project. The notorious duo were immediately dismissed, leaving to pursue their next venture—“The Zihuatanejo Project,” a short lived psychedelic retreat in Mexico to which thousands of people applied, but only a few were selected.

During the 1960s all forms of psychedelic drugs proliferated quickly throughout the counterculture movement, until they were banned by the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic Substances. This convention sought to curb both the rising popularity of these drugs, and the subsequent disillusionment with “the system” which often follows their use. Richard Nixon had shared this sentiment since 1969 and leveraged fears generated by somewhat unscrupulous, if not somewhat biased research to pass the Controlled Substances Act in May 1971, and launch his infamous “War on Drugs.” Interestingly (in the case of Psilocybe mushrooms) the UN convention prohibited the molecule Psilocybin and not the spores or mycelium of psilocybin mushrooms (as these do not contain psilocybin—but have the potential to under the right conditions). This oversight led to a confusing double standard that has allowed the mushroom spores/mycelium to be sold openly, while intermittent UN treaty adherence on the part of numerous member countries has allowed psilocybin mushrooms to remain legal in multiple nations (notably Brazil and Jamaica).

For almost thirty years, there was a hiatus in the (legal) research of the fungi, ending in 1997 with the first post-Drug War Psilocybin study conducted at The University of Zurich. A team of researchers led by Dr. Franz Vollenweider explored whether brain function under the influence of psilocybin was consistent with the brain function of chronic schizophrenia patients, finding that these brain states contrasted significantly. They also found that psilocybin increased brain activity (or in scientific terms, cerebral glucose metabolism) in many areas, and had dampening effects on the ego-influenced Default Mode Network. This study catalyzed research at numerous other institutions, like The Heffter InstituteThe Beckley FoundationJohns Hopkins University, and the University of Toronto. These subsequent studies have found psilocybin to be effective in the treatment of a myriad of psychological conditions, as well as for chronic pain from conditions ranging from cluster headaches to neuralgia.

This growing body of research has also fostered a change in sentiment at all levels of government, and has propelled activists across North America to push for legal reform around “entheogenic” substances as a whole. New Mexico has a loophole that allows for growing mushrooms, while prominent and progressive cities like Denver, Oakland, and Santa Cruz have decriminalized mushrooms. Ballot initiatives are also underway in more than 100 additional localities.

RELATED: New Study Suggests We Need More Testing for Psilocybin Depression Treatments

The Future of Psychedelic Mushrooms

The potential of decriminalization or legalization and scientifically quantifiable examples of medical benefit raise the important issue of fair access to Psilocybe mushrooms. A prime example of legalization reducing the ability of medical users’ ability to access the drugs they need is currently unfolding in Canada, where approximately one in four medical cannabis patients are less easily able to find cannabis post-legalization. Currently, although mushrooms are still illegal, many websites exist offering magic mushrooms online. This accessibility despite lack of regulation does not come without risks—namely a lack of regulation to ensure consistency and quality, along with a higher risk of negative experiences resulting from lack of education on proper administration. (If you want to learn more about how to prepare for a psilocybin experience, maximize both the acute effects and long term benefits of psilocybin, and mitigate the risk of a “bad trip” check out the preparation page on my website.) 

In the coming years we can expect further research and clinical trials (which are currently underway, and accepting new applicants here) corroborating and expanding on the findings of previous studies. The proven efficacy of psychedelics in treating psychological conditions has recently served to scientifically validate what shamanistic societies have known for countless generations; meanwhile, future archaeological discoveries hold the potential to confirm that these substances have exerted a significant effect on our evolution.

We stand at a pivotal moment in the human history of psychedelic mushrooms: on the precipice of ending prohibition. Many activists believe that we should utilize the power of democratic process to influence governing bodies into expanding research on, and the fair distribution of, these profoundly metaphysical substances.