Psilocybin Mushrooms: A History
According to “Psilocybe Mushroom History” on Erowid, “Hallucinogenic mushrooms have been part of human culture as far back as the earliest recorded history.”
The exact date of the first human use of magic mushrooms isn’t known, even by scientists; it’s very, very far back in the course of prehistory. But whether it was at the very point of human’s evolution into existence, or it began with the appearance of cave drawings just around five millennia ago, most all scientists, analysts, and historians agree that ancient civilizations have used psilocybin mushrooms for ages, that shrooms are still used extensively around the world today, and that they will continue to be a fundamental part of human history for millennia to come.
The theory that mushrooms have been used, basically, since the beginning of human existence, has been gaining momentum recently, and it even suggests that species of humans other than Homo sapiens probably ate the mushrooms (most likely by accident). But the oldest evidence that directly depicts purposeful use of psilocybin mushrooms with a knowledge of its effects exist on the bare faces of rocks dotting the landscapes of North Africa. Ancient paintings in the area, estimated be as much as eleven thousand years old, illustrate either groups of people eating mushrooms or the artists’ representations the mushrooms themselves. In Tassili and the plateau of Northern Algera, explorers and archaeologists discovered seven thousand year old cave paintings, these showing the actual mushroom trip and experience. Stones uncovered in spots around Central and South America resembling magic mushroom are presumed to have been created as a tribute to a divine mushroom being. The people built temples that historians think are dedicated to these “mushroom Gods” as well, and the “mushroom stones” in these crafts and structures were crafted between 500 B.C. and 100 B.C.
Later on, a god named “Piltzinecuhtli,”which means “Seven Flower,” was worshipped by the Mixtecs of Mexico as “the god for hallucinatory plants, especially the divine mushroom.” Similarly, as the Aztects started using the plethora of natural psychedelics that grew around them (including peyote, morning glory seeds, Datura, Salvia divinorum, and of course, psilocybin mushrooms, which they are believed to have called “teonanácatl” meaning “flesh of the gods”), they began the worship of “Xochipilli,” “Prince of Flowers.” He was named the “divine patron of ‘the flowery dream,’” ‘the flowery dream’ referring to the psychedelic trips and the trances they would enter through them. The Aztects used the psychoactive plants around them as entheogens, taking them in spiritual settings to invoke religious experiences, see “dreams” or visions (that they would later interpret), or even talk to the Gods.
When Catholic missionaries came by boat to the Americas from Spain, they kept journals of their experiences; some document the use of the natural psychedelics from the local area by natives, and some even recount the missionaries’ own experiences with psilocybin mushrooms and other drugs.
But, even with the mounting evidence, it’s still not completely accepted by the historical community that psilocybin mushrooms had a strong, sustained influence in human culture (especially when compared to other natural hallucinogens, some of which grow in more abundance and can survive harsher conditions). Some historians argue there is little significance in the relationship at all.
These people argue that the ones claiming the evidence are simply, “seeing what they want to see,” referring to the “mushroom stones,” “mushroom temples,” etc. Other people often counter-ague with the fact that psilocybin mushrooms have confirmed use in very old civilizations, like the previous two mentioned as well as the Nauhua and the Zapatec (Side note: The Mazatec, the Mixtec, the Nauhua, and the Zapatec all lived in and around Central America; psilocybin mushrooms still grow abundantly in the area today).
Fast forward to the U.S. in the 1950’s, and the pharmaceutical companies are first perking their ears to the potential medicinal benefits of magic mushrooms. R. Gordon Wasson, mycologist (“Mycologists” are researchers who study different species of mushrooms and their properties; Now You Know!), flew down to Mexico where the shrooms grew abundantly in the mid-50’s. Landing in southern Mexico in an area known as the Oaxaca region, Wasson set out to meet with the local indigenous Mazatec.
While he was staying with the people, Wasson had the chance of witnessing them perform a Mazzatec ritiual, in full view. They took either dry mushrooms or shroom preparations in a religious ceremony, and to Wasson’s luck or not: he was invited.
Wasson had never done anything like it before (this is 1955, the public didn’t really know about LSD at the time, and it was before the Vietnam War); first, he just saw the colors. Patterns of vivid colors moving and morphing on the floor and rocks around him as he sat down. Then, after what could’ve been two hours or ten minutes (it was probably around twenty minutes, but this is just a guess; he may mention the time of onset and other details about his trip in his article, talked about later), the thoughts came; a flow of ideas, an openness of judgment, a great euphoria.
He made the trip back and wrote up an article summing up the entire experience. Life magazine picked it up and published it in 1957 (Side Note: Life editors named the article “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” which Wasson had nothing to do with. But the phrase is well known today; independent film have been titled after the quote).
Later, as Albert Hofmann was conducting clinical experiments on his LSD (his as in Hofmann first discovered LSD), he was exchanging ideas with Roger Heim, who was good friends with Wasson. Hofmann had actually, earlier, isolated psilocin and psilocybin (both active chemicals in psilocybin mushrooms) from the very same mushrooms that Wasson had collected during his trip in Mexico.
The article was big. Timothy Leary is a name that might ring a bell; he was a Ph. D. professor at Harvard who experimented extensively with psilocybin and LSD, also speaking of his enlightenment after a trip to Mexico and encounters with the native shroom users. Leary ended up catching eye of Wasson’s “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” article, praising the opinions that Wasson gave in his writing.
Part of Leary’s work and simply part of the events and emotions of the time led to psilocybin mushrooms’ boom, leading right behind LSD as one of the most popular psychedelics among hippies and medical institutions alike. The attention it brought itself ended up prompting the U.S. government to list psilocin, psilocybin, and its derivatives as Schedule I drugs, later adding the drugs to the Controlled Substances Act (A.K.A. Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970). The following year, as the act went into effect, the United Kingdom banned psilocybin mushrooms as well, and in the decades to come, nations around the world would follow for political and economic reasons. The Netherlands officially barred he drug from medical and recreation use on December 1, 2008.
But despite legal battles, use of magic mushrooms continues to spread. It’s one of the most popular recreational psychedelic drugs, one of the oldest known entheogens used for spiritual and religious enlightenment in human history, and in recent years, has been stirring up more and more attention among doctors and scientists for its use in mental illness and disease. Political waves may sway official regulation of psilocybin one way or another, but regardless, magic mushrooms are going to forever be a part of human culture.