Did ancient Mesopotamians get high? Near Eastern rituals may have included opium, cannabis

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Poppies, shown here with seed pods, have been used to produce opium in the Near East for some 5000 years. ISTOCK.COM/OZTURK

Did ancient Mesopotamians get high? Near Eastern rituals may have included opium, cannabis

MUNICH, GERMANY—For as long as there has been civilization, there have been mind-altering drugs. Alcohol was distilled at least 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent, about the same time that agriculture took hold there. Elsewhere, for example in Mesoamerica, other psychoactive drugs were an important part of culture. But the ancient Near East had seemed curiously drug-free—until recently.

Now, new techniques for analyzing residues in excavated jars and identifying tiny amounts of plant material suggest that ancient Near Easterners indulged in a range of psychoactive substances. Recent advances in identifying traces of organic fats, waxes, and resins invisible to the eye have allowed scientists to pinpoint the presence of various substances with a degree of accuracy unthinkable a decade or two ago.

For example, “hard scientific evidence” shows that ancient people extracted opium from poppies, says David Collard, senior archaeologist at Jacobs, an engineering firm in Melbourne, Australia, who found signs of ritual opium use on Cyprus dating back more than 3000 years. By then, drugs like cannabis had arrived in Mesopotamia, while people from Turkey to Egypt experimented with local substances such as blue water lily.