Date: 20 Mar 2014

The Origins of Inebriation: Archaeological Evidence of the Consumption of Fermented Beverages and Drugs in Prehistoric Eurasia

Abstract

The earliest testimonies of the use of alcohol and drugs suggest that inebriation is a long-established habit, the origins of which can be traced back to prehistory. Traces highly suggestive of fermented beverages and remains of psychoactive plants have been recovered from archaeological sites throughout prehistoric Europe. This paper surveys the history of these substances from a cultural approach based on the contexts of consumption. A wide range of documents will be examined here (macrofossil remains of psychoactive plants, residues of fermented beverages, alkaloids in archaeological items and artistic depictions, among others). Considering that these sensory-altering products are mainly found in tombs and ceremonial places, they seem to be strongly connected to ritual usages. Far from being consumed for hedonistic purposes, it can therefore be argued that drug plants and alcoholic drinks had a sacred role among prehistoric societies.

This paper has emerged from a series of lectures, and it has greatly benefited from the opportunity to receive comments from different audiences. It was first presented at the conference “Intoxicants and Intoxication in Historical and Cultural Perspective”, organized by Dr Phil Withington and Dr Angela McShane in Cambridge, July 2010. Despite the title of this conference, I have intentionally avoided the terms “intoxicants” or “intoxication” because they are associated with “poisoning”, and have a pejorative meaning. This is in marked contrast to the role of mind-altering substances in prehistoric times, when they were consumed in ritual contexts and were considered to be sacred. I further explored this issue in a paper read at the Laboratoire Protohistoire Européenne (UMR 7041, CNRS-Universités Paris 1-Panthéon Sorbonne and Paris Ouest-La Défense), in Paris, March 2011, on the invitation of Dr Laurence Manolakakis and Dr Olivier Weller.
To the memory of Professor Andrew Sherratt