New hair testing uncovers drug use in Bronze Age cultures

Hairs found in an ancient cave in Spain have shed light on the use of drug plants in ancient Europe.

Plants like mandrake (Mandragora autumnalis), henbane (Hyoscyamus albus), thorn apple (Datura stramonium) and joint pine (Ephedra fragilis), were the likely sources of several drugs detected in hair samples obtained from a burial site in Menorca.

That’s because precise analysis of ancient hair samples sealed in containers from the Es Càrritx caves in Spain found traces of the psychoactive stimulants tropine, scopolamine, and ephedrine.

It’s not the first time that long-passed humans have been effectively drug-tested. Similar hair testing has found traces of various psychoactive substances from other Bronze Age cultures across Europe and the precolonial Americas.

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But the research published in Scientific Reports now suggests that some indigenous peoples in Western Europe may have used hallucinogens derived from multiple plant species as part of their cultural behaviour.

Inner chamber of es càrritx cav
The Inner chamber of Es Càrritx cav. Credit: ASOME-Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

Ancient hair testing reveals cultural practice

Hair testing is used to detect tiny remnants of illicit substances in modern day humans.

Once consumed, chemicals circulate in the bloodstream and are eventually integrated into growing hairs within the hair follicle.

To determine whether chemicals have been taken by a person, locks of hair are cut from the scalp, and decontaminated. Each substance in the hair is then isolated and atomically weighed.

Similar processes are used to determine chemical composition in millennia-old hairs.

In this case, the ancient samples were preserved in containers made from wood and antler bone retrieved from a burial chamber, which served as the final resting place for about 200 people who died between 1600 and 800 BCE.

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Included within some containers were red-dyed hair samples, likely due to a ritual treatment using local hematite pigments or plant colourant.

Detail of a hair strand
One of the Menorcan hair strands analysed Credit: ASOME-Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Finding these hair containers deep within the Es Càrritx cave system suggests attempts by these Bronze Age communities to protect their culture amid transforming populations in the region around 800 BCE, according to the researchers.

The use of drug plants like atropine and scopolamine have been suggested as key component in European witchcraft practices from the Middle Ages due to their delirium and hallucination-inducing properties, whereas ephedrine was likely used for its rush-stimulating effect.

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