Tuesday, February 25, 2014

NEW SERIES. Psychoactive's from the Big Bang until Today. Chapter 3 Part 1. "Smoke and Coke"

NEW SERIES. Psychoactive drugs – from the Big Bang to Today.

Some form of psychoactive drug use has been embraced, to varying extents by most cultural groups. As of the 21st Century it is rare to find a large group of peoples who do not have one or more forms of drug use ingrained in their traditions, their culture, in religious or spiritual contexts, or in national and multinational policy and of course in social and recreational situations. I will take you on a journey of discovery from a nanosecond after the big bang right up to the complexity and controversy of psychoactive drugs in the 21st century. Enjoy.

Chapter 3. A Clash of Cultures: Old World Drugs Meet New World Drugs. Part 1.

In this section we will look at stimulant drug use in pre-1495 South America. We will be examining a time just before the pivotal ocean voyages of Columbus, Magellan and Cook tied the world up into more or less one big network connecting the major ports of the Earth like a web. This enabled the establishment of a global drug market, which provided lucrative profits for merchants willing to trade in these high demand psychoactive materials. Before the old world continents of Europe, Asia and Africa collided with the new worlds continents of South and North America. The humans living in the Americas had developed a unique, ancient and rich drug culture.

 A thousand years ago the people of the Americas had already discovered several novel psychoactive drugs, mostly from native plants. The drugs in these plants would in another millennia become household names in much of the world. Cocaine, Magic Mushrooms, Mescaline, DMT, Salvia Divinorum, Alcohol and last but by no means least Tobacco, all these drugs would become popular and/or infamous to different extents in most major cultural groups and many smaller social groups. Of all the drugs discovered by the new world peoples of pre-Columbus America; Nicotine and Cocaine would become two of the most predominantly used drugs in the 21st Century. Hundreds of millions of people use these drugs today, but nobody outside of the Americas had tried them, or even knew they existed half a millennia ago.

Tobacco and Cocaine are both Central Nervous System (CNS) Stimulants - this means they increase the activity in the CNS. These two stimulants are perhaps the most prescient stimulants in some 21st century countries - in some countries tobacco is the most ubiquitous drug there is. These substances were discovered during the long interlude of time somewhere between pre-recorded history many thousands of years ago and the merger of the old and new 'worlds' in the 16th century. In pre-recorded history, Homo sapiens journeyed on foot across the Bering straight of East Asia and meandered southwards, through the Amazon and to the southern tip of the new continent. They travelled as far as they could go, many stopped and set up tribes and communities along the way. A great many new drugs were discovered by our ancestors during this time. These brand new territories had unique plants to try, many of the drugs they found existed nowhere else on earth. As the old and new worlds slowly developed, very different drug cultures arose as did new civilizations. The two worlds were separated by the great oceans of the Pacific and Atlantic and each world had different species of plant, fungi and animal to investigate for psychoactivity. The fact that each world was largely ignorant of what mysteries and cultures existed across the Oceans, meant that the two worlds developed drugs and drug cultures that were not only novel but were qualitatively different in psychoactive effects.

"Burning Tobacco Leaves"

Smoking tobacco dates to the pre-Columbian empires of the Maya and the Aztecs. These mighty civilizations and other South American peoples were oblivious to their eventual fates. The Maya the Aztec and Incan empires eventually crumbled. Taking much of their drug culture and drug knowledge with them as they declined or were conquered by old world empires such as Spain and other nations who arrived in the 15th and 16th Centuries. There was a clashing of cultures and a mixing of drugs. These South American civilizations and their drug discoveries were not all lost or ruined, some of the ideas and inventions were picked up by the Europeans and were brought back to Europe. Tobacco quickly became popular for the kings, popes, aristocracy and merchants who first brought the items back. One of these inventions became so popular it became one of the most popular, harmful and ubiquitous behaviors in all human history: smoking.

 Generally speaking a lifetime smoker will on average take 10 years off their life and approximately 1 in every 2 lifetime smokers will die as a result of tobacco smoke *. Reflecting upon these incredibly high mortality rates is shocking, if one takes into account the fact that many hundreds of millions of people smoke tobacco it is clearly one of the most deadly yet obviously popular psychoactive drugs in the 21st Century. The life expectancy of medieval citizens was not the 70-80 years as some countries now average, it was far, far lower so death from smoking may not have been as common in medieval American communities. The history of tobaccos active ingredient, nicotine will play a tremendously larger role as we examine more recent drug use history. But tobacco made its debut in human drug culture many millennia ago, in a small, but not completely lost corner of human history.

Smoking tobacco has been practiced for a minimum of 1000 years – it may very well be a far older and therefore unrecorded human behavior. There is archaeological evidence, such as pictures carved into pottery, that show tobacco smoking was practiced 1000 years ago by the natives of South America. Pottery left over from artisans indicate that tobacco must have been a significant part of these cultures, why would they make ancient art about something they attached no significant meaning to? Someone did have to be the first to try tobacco though, we have no known way of knowing when this was. Most likely they tried eating the leaves, then graduated to the most effective method of inhaling the burnt plant material.

 I wonder how the practice caught on in the Americas, perhaps as a religious sacrament that put shamans in touch with what they perceived as something divine or transcendent. I can imagine regional shamans smoked it in large amounts to induce 'head spins', intoxication or to initiate 'contact' with the "divine", such as in a sacred ritual. Many ancient cultures around the world today have one or more divine plants, used in spiritual ceremonies, tobacco was very likely revered as, and used as a holy sacrament. Maybe the rich oligarchs of the area or the countless serfs who harvested the plant could acquire tobacco regularly and therefore probably used it every day.

 There is evidence today that we can use to infer that people were dependant on tobacco in pre-Columbus America. The number of  people who use tobacco and become dependent on the drug, in modern times is approximately 1 in every 3 or 4 people. This high level of dependency is due largely to nicotine's high affinity for the dopamine receptors of the brain - the part of the brain that largely causes feelings of pleasure and reward. The more a drug excites the dopaminergic pathway the more addictive it is, as a heuristic rule. Tasty food and sexual stimulation are natural ways to increase levels of dopamine in the brain, this is partly why food and sex 'feel' good, because dopamine is being released which we experience as "pleasurable". Our brain's, and many other organisms brains, use the neurotransmitter dopamine to reward behaviors that increase their own chance of survival, eating food for example releases dopamine, which leads to a desire to experience the sensation again, which leads to eating, which causes feelings of pleasure via dopamine, to further survival and so on. Dopamine is also used as a reward mechanism to encourage humans to pass on their genes and propagate the species, sex releases dopamine in order to "encourage" the behavior to be repeated. The human orgasm is an example of the largest 'natural' spike in dopamine levels -this may come as no surprise as biologically we are wired to sexually pass our genes down the ancestral chain by having children, you may have noticed yourself that an orgasm is not the average state of consciousness, it is an intense and euphoric one.

 Some modern drugs cause dopamine spikes that are several times greater than an orgasm, humans had not yet refined natural drugs or invented chemistry to do this though. So smoking tobacco would have been as "rewarding" dopmainergically, to the natives of South America all those centuries ago, as it would be with a smoker alive today. So a surge in dopamine increases the chances that the behavior will be repeated, as dopamine helped us survive and reproduce. This is just how our brains evolved, dopamine did not evolve to be artificially stimulated by drugs, but many cultures made the discovery that certain plants do alter one's consciousness. They did not know how or why, but it is as true now as it was true then; nicotine increases dopamine levels in the brain. So, given the pharmacological qualities of nicotine and its relationship with the "reward" neurotransmitter dopamine, it would be reasonable to infer that many native Americans became dependant on smoking. The discoverers and pioneers of smoking did not know why they wanted to repeat the activity of inhaling burnt tobacco leaves, but a modern perspective shows that they were simply repeating a behavior that was "rewarding" them with dopamine. The strongest naturally occurring stimulant in the world was found on the South American continent, it was not nicotine, but similar to nicotine it was discovered thousands of years ago and is manufactured in the leaves of a small green plant. Unlike nicotine this drug causes the largest spike of synaptic dopamine that has ever been measured by a drug in the biological world, that drug is Cocaine.


Cocaine is a stimulant like Nicotine but they are very different drugs; molecularly and psychoactively. Tobacco is a relatively mild stimulant, exciting acetylcholine in the brain. Cocaine stimulates the CNS by increasing the levels of (nor) adrenaline in the brain, which causes a strong sensation of increased energy and alertness. Cocaine also has the potential to increase levels of dopamine in the brain more than any other naturally occurring stimulant. Cocaine is one of the top 5 illegal drugs consumed in the USA. Cocaine use dates back at least a few thousand years and was culturally ingrained in the Incan empire of South America. The cocaine used during the time of the Inca was not the extracted white powdery substance most people are familiar with today, which, if smoked as Crack or Injected into a vein can cause the strongest surge of dopamine from a naturally occurring molecule.

 Cocaine is found in the leaves of the green shrub Coca (Species). Pure cocaine was not isolated from the plant until the late 1800’s. Thousands of years ago the Inca would chew the leaves of the Coca plant to achieve a relatively mild euphoria, a loss of altitude sickness, an increase in energy and a decrease in fatigue. Chewing the leaves breaks down the cell walls of the plant and releases the psychoactive molecule Cocaine into the mouth. The cocaine can then enter the bloodstream through the buccal or sub lingual membranes of the mouth, with effects being experienced within fifteen minutes and lasting around one hour. If the Cocaine is chewed then swallowed (instead of absorbing the drug in the mouth) the drug is absorbed by the digestive tract, meaning the drug takes longer to produce its effects – but lasts longer due to a slower rise in peak drug plasma levels. Cocaine is the same molecule today as it was when the Inca chewed it.
 The Incan empire did not have horses to ride upon to carry important messages of state, so 'runners' delivered messages in relays, chewing coca leaves to relieve fatigue, altitude sickness and ultimately to run faster so the message was delivered sooner. 

I wonder what people back then would have thought about the cause of the “mystical” or "mysterious" properties and effects of these plants - nowadays the enigma is understood simply as a change in brain neurochemistry - our ancestors could only guess why certain leaves had certain "powers" over the mind.  Our resourceful, experimenting species discovered and used nicotine and cocaine in spiritual, recreational and utilitarian circumstances by the inhabitants of the “new world” – yet they were ignorant of how the plants worked their “magic” in the first place, often it was explained as a way to connect with the divine, these plants were not "food" or inedible plants, they were something else, they had properties that seemed like manna from the gods to some. These peoples knew smoking or chewing leaves affected one's state of mind but they could only speculate as to how or why this occurred, like almost every other culture the plants were thought to be sacred or godly. These plants also were used as medicinal plants in early societies and later used rather extensively in the mighty Inca, Aztec or Maya empires. Ironically tobacco was probably used to 'cure' disease, instead it has little medical value at all.

 Cocaine in its original form is still used in Bolivia and other South American nations by farmers, workers - Regular citizens chew coca leaves in Bolivia for much the same reasons the Incan farmers, workers and regular peoples chewed them - for pleasure, reduced fatigue, altitude sickness, socializing and so on.  
 Cocaine and Tobacco are two of the most ubiquitous stimulant drugs in the world today. They began their journey inside the leaves of the Coca and Tobacco plants of Central and South America. Here they sat idle, harvesting sun, Co2, water and nutrients to manufacture the alkaloid drugs; cocaine and nicotine. Then one day a curious new species called Homo sapiens started chewing their leaves – probably surprising and confusing these ancient peoples at first, - after all, they did not know why or how the plant produced the effects it did. Many attached religious, divine or spiritual connotations to these unique plants. It is only in the last century that we have understood the neurochemistry of the brain in any great detail, yet these peoples took these drugs frequently and used them widely for over 1000 years before Columbus sailed west and the drug cultures met.

Apart from Tobacco and Cocaine the peoples living in pre-Columbus America seem to have been the first to have discovered multiple psychedelic drugs. Psychedelic drugs are serotonin agonists, they bind to pre-exiting serotonergic receptors in the brain and directly stimulate them. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter like dopamine, adrenaline or acetylcholine - they are different in that they have different functions in the brain. Serotonin will be elaborated on in more detail in part 2. Virtually every psychedelic drug is an agonist of two or more serotonin 2(x) receptors. Intriguingly the new world had exclusive access to many psychedelics, the old world did not have as large an inventory of psychedelic's. Either they were not used or recorded as much, or were not discovered at all. Psychedelic drugs have been invaluable in discovering how the brain works because serotonin is one of the most important neurotransmitters in your brain. You even manufacture a psychedelic drug in your own brain called DMT (Dimethytriptamine). You are a walking drug lab.

In part 2 of Chapter 3 we will look into the other notable drugs that were commonly used in large parts of the New World, particularly the psychedelic drugs; DMT, Psilocin and Mescaline, as well as other drugs that are not psychedelic but like psychedelic's are classed as a Hallucinogen. This unique hallucinogen is Salvia Divinorum.

 After Part 2 the world will be all mapped and global drug markets will open up for trade.  
Thanks for reading!

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