The oldest known physical evidence of drug use in Europe is uncovered through hair analysis.

Around 3,000 years ago, inhabitants of Mediterranean islands consumed psychoactive plants, according to evidence found in the cave remains.

The discovery of hair strands among a collection of items in a Menorcan cave has yielded Europe's earliest evidence of direct consumption of psychoactive drugs, dating back to approximately 3,000 years ago.

Europe's earliest evidence of direct consumption of hallucinogenic drugs has been discovered in a cave on a Mediterranean island, according to researchers. Human hair recovered from Menorca's Es Càrritx cave indicates that around 3,000 years ago, visitors, potentially shamans who conducted spiritual and healing rituals, ingested plants that contained substances that altered the mind and induced visions. Earlier studies had dated human activity in the cave, which features over 200 graves at the entrance, to between 3,600 and 2,800 years ago. Additionally, a group of objects was discovered within an inner chamber of the cave, including six wooden boxes, each of which held a lock of human hair.

The presence of mind-altering plant substances has been revealed in a chemical analysis of human hairs entangled with animal bones, extracted from a wooden container found in a cave on a Mediterranean island.WITTE, E. GUERRA-DOCE ET AL/SCI. REPORTS 2023

Researchers conducting chemical analyses on the locks of hair found in one of the containers, possibly belonging to multiple individuals, have identified three psychoactive plant substances. The substances, atropine, and scopolamine from nightshade plants, induce hallucinations, disorientation, and altered physical sensations, while ephedrine increases alertness and energy. The findings, published on April 6 in Scientific Reports, suggest that shamans who consumed these potentially dangerous plants would have known how to handle them safely.

The researchers speculate that individuals seeking to preserve ancient traditions hid hair and other objects of ritual significance at Es Càrritx, as the growing population of Menorca brought about social changes between 3,000 and 2,800 years ago. Burial customs of this era included the dyeing of strands of hair on corpses to reddish color and subsequently removing and storing some locks in containers near the graves.

Previous hair analyses have also uncovered evidence of drug use in ancient cultures. Inca children who were destined for sacrifice over 500 years ago were found to have ingested hallucinogenic drinks, coca leaves, and alcohol, while a 2005 study detected chemical traces of coca-leaf chewing in the hair of two mummies from Chile dating back to approximately 3,000 years ago. Indirect evidence of drug use in various regions of the world, such as artistic representations, dates back even further.


E. Guerra-Doce et al. Direct evidence of the use of multiple drugs in Bronze Age Menorca (western Mediterranean) from human hair analysis. Scientific Reports. Published April 6, 2023. 10.1038/s41598-023-31064-2.

M.A. Rivera et al. Antiquity of coca-leaf chewing in the south central Andes: A 3,000 year archaeological record of coca-leaf chewing from northern Chile. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. Vol. 37, 2005, p. 455. Doi: 10.1080/02791072.2005.10399820



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