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Our Ancestors May Have "Used Drugs To Survive"

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    NHNE News List Current Members: 717 Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message. ... ANCESTORS USED DRUGS TO SURVIVE BBC Saturday, 30
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      NHNE News List
      Current Members: 717
      Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message.


      Saturday, 30 March, 2002


      Mind-altering drugs may be so popular because they were once used by our
      ancestors to survive, two leading anthropologists have argued.

      Dr Roger Sullivan, of the University of Auckland, and Edward Hagen, of the
      University of California at Santa Barbara, say there is plenty of evidence
      that humans have sought out so-called psychotropic drugs over millions of

      These plants are rich in alkaline substances such as nicotine and cocaine
      that produce a stimulant effect and may have helped to make life bearable in
      the most harsh of environments.

      For example, until recently Australian Aborigines used the nicotine-rich
      plant pituri to help them endure desert travel without food. And Andeans
      still chew coca leaves to help them work at high altitudes.

      Archaeological evidence shows that drug use was widespread in ancient

      Betel nut, for example, was chewed at least 13,000 years ago in Timor, to
      the north of Australia. Artefacts date the use of coca in Ecuador to at
      least 5,000 years ago.

      Ancient 'freebasing'

      Many of these substances were potent: pituri contains up to 5% nicotine -
      tobacco today contains about 1.5%.

      What is more, these drug pioneers sometimes 'freebased' drugs by chewing
      them together with an alkali such as lime or wood ash.

      This releases the free form of the drug and allows it to be directly
      absorbed into the bloodstream.

      However, Dr Sullivan said that in Pacific cultures where chewing betel nut
      is still widespread, it is seen more as a source of food and energy than as
      a drug.

      Some drugs do have real nutritional value. For example, 100 grams of coca
      leaf contains more than the US recommended daily intake of calcium,
      phosphorus, iron and vitamins A, B2 and E.

      Brain function

      Dr Sullivan and Dr Hagen believe that eating psychotropic plants may also
      have played an important role in helping the brain to function properly.

      They argue that in some particularly tough environments, people's diets may
      have been so poor that they struggled to produce enough chemicals to help
      the brain function normally.

      Consuming plants containing substances that mimic the role of these
      chemicals could have helped make up for the shortfall.

      Dr Wayne Hall, of the University of Queensland, who until recently was head
      of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre in Sydney, said the theory
      was certainly plausible.

      He said: "There is certainly evidence that plants evolved to mimic the
      neurotransmitters of mammals.

      "But the problem today is that we have much larger doses of much more
      purified drugs."

      Professor Tonmoy Sharma, a consultant psychiatrist at Stonehouse Hospital,
      Dartford, told BBC News Online that modern drug taking was more likely to be
      related to peer pressure.

      He said: "Historically speaking a lot of people who did abuse drugs seem to
      be from the higher socio-economic classes who had relative luxuries in their

      "A lot of people who take drugs are not necessarily getting rid of their
      problems. It is more a question of fitting into a certain social grouping."

      The research is published in the journal Addiction.


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