Chemistry

The Mushrooms Along the Path to Human Evolution

Intro

Life can be daunting. When you look at our fast pace, technophilic lives and world where gadgets and apps and tweets abound, it can be tricky to navigate through the debris to focus on things that matter. No matter how hard you try, you’re never caught up. “The planet swims in a self-generated ocean of messages,” Terence McKenna said some 29 years ago. [1] Your work might suffer; your focus might be shot. The smartphone calls out like an inorganic appendage, constantly sucking your attention and focus. [2]

For all the discussion of our human evolution, relentless hate and violence and war have caused a tragic desensitization. Just in the last few years, we’ve endured so much that finding a quiet moment of peace can be palatial. These events have scarred us as a globe, invoking anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in many more people than those millions that have been officially diagnosed. We are human beings and yet, relentless news reports reveal a volatile underbelly of inhumanity.

We are spiraling out of control in so many ways that to contemplate them for too long can be dizzying. Anxiety, depression, and PTSD are battle scars from years of this kind of living. Addiction adds another. We cannot continue like this without serious ramifications to our existence. We need to press reset so we can regroup and rejuvenate our minds.

 

When Taboos Evolve to Godsends

Every so often, especially in a society that seems to trust less and less, something can appear too good to be true, and with the rise of modern medicine, natural solutions may resemble snake oil peddled town to town to make a buck without having any real merit.

Enter psychedelics and the wonderful, almost witchy world of ethnobotanical medicine. Visionaries like Terence McKenna pursued plants like ayahuasca and psilocybin-containing mushrooms for the legends they projected. The persuasiveness of the plants and the hallucinatory and healing realm within them prophesy a hopeful tomorrow where today’s anxieties molt like sloughed-off snakeskin, the anxieties a remnant of what once was. Welcome to the new you.

McKenna wrote that “More precious than the news of the anti-neutrino, more full of hope for humanity than the detection of new quasars, is the knowledge that certain plants, certain compounds, unlock forgotten doorways onto worlds of immediate experience that confound our science, and indeed, confound us.” [1] And: “Gaining access to the unconscious through plant hallucinogen use reaffirms our original bond to the living planet.”

Our original bond to the living planet?

How could this be?

McKenna hypothesized that psychedelic mushrooms are very ancient, and in fact, have been very instrumental in our evolution. The story goes like this.

 

The Path to Human Evolution May Have Been Peppered with Mushrooms

Early bipedal hominids began venturing out of the forests to explore African grasslands, seeking out new sources of food given their omnivorous nature. Their only option for testing different plant species was good old trial and error. So, they’d nibble on new plants to scope them out. Concurrent to all this, wild cattle roamed the grasslands, defecating in the grass. Sometimes, mushrooms sprouted up out of the fecal muck, and the hungry hominids consumed them. One can only wonder what scenes ran through their minds.

It has been demonstrated that early human brains grew more rapidly than what otherwise would have occurred. After 3 million years, our brains tripled in size, a magical phenomenon that’s been referred to as “perhaps the fastest advance recorded for any complex organ in the whole history of life.” [3] Thus spawned the search for the missing link. McKenna hypothesized that the initially haphazard ingestion of psychedelic mushrooms caused the surge in brain size, fortuitously catapulting our evolution.

 

The Mushroom is the Word

McKenna believed that the hominids discovered their own consciousness, their own self-awareness, and eventually, the incorporation of psychedelic mushrooms spawned language, the “active impulse to speak, ‘the going forth of the word’.” In short, what it means to be human.

The boost in brain power led to our ancestors fashioning tools and using fire and language, three integral components in their quest for survival. Maybe they noticed a heightened visual alertness (what McKenna stylishly calls “chemical binoculars”) after consuming a handful of the mushrooms that drove them to try a few more.

Those early humans eating mushrooms may have correlated specific activities to the availability of the mushrooms which McKenna postulates may have, in turn, shaped ritual and religion. And as more mushrooms were ingested, hallucinations and the incredulity that likely followed could have sparked the ancients to try to communicate what they saw, perhaps with such awe that what they described would be labeled today as a religious experience. “Its power is so extraordinary, that psilocybin can be considered the catalyst to the human development of language,” McKenna theorized.

Wow.

 

The Apple was a Mushroom

If you haven’t heard any of this before, you may be wondering if this is all a tall tale, fanciful thinking without much proof. And I don’t blame you. It is fantastic!

McKenna provided his rationale for making these claims, sifting through details of other potential hallucinogens that could have been prevalent in Africa such as ibogaine and dimethyltryptamine (DMT). One by one, he refutes other substances until only the mushrooms remain likely.

He bolsters his argument by unearthing details regarding ancient civilizations likely established via mushroom use and the newfound need to communicate via language. One of the most compelling regards the Tassili n’Ajjer plateau in what is now southeastern Algeria. The area is within the Sahara Desert now, but long ago, it was much more inhabitable, with grazing cattle and a noteworthy civilization. Rock paintings, like the exquisite Bee Man (Figure 5 here), depict shaman holding mushrooms while mushrooms protrude out of their bodies. This area has even been postulated as representing the real Eden.

The people who lived on the Tassili n’Ajjer plateau migrated away from Africa, likely as the land became unusable. Interestingly, McKenna correlates the biblical Garden of Eden story to this exodus out of Tassili n’Ajjer. “The retreat of the glaciers from the Eurasian landmass and the simultaneous acceleration of aridity in the African grasslands eventually brought the ‘casting out of Eden’ allegorically conveyed in Genesis,” he wrote. Amazingly, you can follow the trail of art to explore where these people went.

Our journey continues East to the Anatolian city named Çatal Hüyük (pronounced cha-tel hoo-yek), in which some 7,000 people resided. Archaeologists exploring the region have been perplexed by the sophistication of the Çatal Hüyük civilization, referring to it as a “a premature flash of brilliance and complexity” that was far ahead of its time. [4] The art demonstrated the importance of domesticated and wild cattle, which ultimately provided mushrooms in addition to milk, meat, and manure.

McKenna and other scholars contend that the brilliant culture of Çatal Hüyük was not born within the city, but in fact, was created by the former residents of Tassili. They point to the preservation of older tradition within the more contemporary society, the reverence of cattle, the styles of art depicting African animals like cattle, bulls, leopards, and vultures, and even the pigments used in that art’s creation. [4,5]

Tassili rock art also bears a striking resemblance to paintings made in ancient Egypt. McKenna postulated that the art of the Egyptians mirrored that at Tassili n’Ajjer because the very same people who left Africa settled Egypt! There’s more to it, of course, but the gist is much the same. Remarkable civilizations, each building upon the other, perhaps connected by the evolutionary catalyst that psychedelic mushrooms may have provided. It’s a wonderfully monumental and rather scandalous scenario! Who would dare write about it in history books?

But what if mushrooms really did induce consciousness and language and art? What if they brought early humans together into communities, surviving together instead of living riskier solitary lives? If it could happen to our ancient ancestors such that they worked together, where culture and agriculture thrived, and where a respect for our Earth could be visualized in their art, could it happen once again?

 

Back to the Future

With all our anxiety, depression, and PTSD; in a fear-based society where being neighborly is more likely to be viewed as creepy rather than quaint; where a quick scan of today’s news reveals feedback loops of human ugliness, we could use something that unifies us as humans, as Earthlings. Luckily, we’ve found our way back to psychedelic mushrooms as taboos drop around us like dead flies.

Scientists continue to validate the beneficent role that these fungi can play for fighting back mental distress without corresponding hazards to a patient’s health. Often, psychospiritual experiences resulting from the ingestion of the hallucinogen correlate with the effectiveness of the therapy. Psilocybin has helped patients with life-threatening forms of cancer to find substantial relief from anxiety and depression. [6] A high dose of psilocybin (22 or 30 mg/70 kg) provided “significant decreases in clinician-rated and self-rated measures of depression, anxiety or mood disturbance, and increases in measures of quality of life, life meaning, death acceptance, and optimism.” [6] The effects were sustained for 6 months. It can provide terminally ill people with new perspectives, granting the capacity to come to terms with their deaths, enabling them to die with less fear and more dignity. [7]

Psilocybin use has also sparked empathy and creativity by increasing emotional empathy (you feel what someone else feels) and divergent thinking (thought processes to generate creativity by evaluating many solutions) the morning after ingestion. [8] Increased empathy correlated with an increased sense of well-being. Convergent thinking (trying to find one solution to a problem) also was enhanced for a week after psilocybin ingestion.

Psilocybin has also been evaluated for its efficacy in treating addiction, whether for smoking cessation [9] or alcohol dependence [10]. The effects of cigarettes and excessive alcohol consumption are well-known and damaging to our qualities of life.

It is becoming increasingly clear that psilocybin mushrooms have a lot to offer. It is vital that we continue to conquer our stigmas and the fallacy of psilocybin’s Schedule I label. Just like we asked “what if” regarding McKenna’s belief that psychedelic mushrooms expedited our evolution, the same question applies to modern society, and our return to the Earth to solicit options for mental and physical health and wellness. What if this ancient substance holds the key to globally sweeping compassion, creativity, and happiness? What if it enables us to press a mental reset button, to cast aside the detritus of irrelevant things to channel our focus on things that truly matter? Isn’t that worth our consideration?

 

References

[1] McKenna T. Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge. Bantam Books: New York; 1992.
 

[2] Wilmer HH, Sherman LE, Chein JM. Smartphones and cognition: a review of research exploring the links between mobile technology habits and cognitive functioning. Front Psychol. 2017;8:605. [journal impact factor = 2.067; times cited = 158]  

[3] Lumsden C, Wilson E. Promethean Fire: Reflections on the Origin of the Mind. Harvard University Press: Cambridge; 1983.
 

[4] Settegast M. Plato Prehistorian. Rotenberg Press: Cambridge; 1987.
 

[5] Mellaart J. Çatal Hüyük: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia. McGraw Hill: New York; 1967.
 

[6] Griffiths RR, Johnson MW, Carducci MA, et al. Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. J Psychopharmacol. 2016;30(12):1181-1197. [journal impact factor = 4.738; times cited = 407]  

[7] Grob CS, Danforth AL, Chopra GS, et al. Pilot study of psilocybin treatment for anxiety in patients with advanced-stage cancer. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2011;68(1):71-78. [journal impact factor = 14.480; times cited = 484]  

[8] Mason NL, Mischler E, Uthaug MV, Kuypers KPC. Sub-acute effects of psilocybin on empathy, creative thinking, and subjective well-being. J Psychoactive Drugs. 2019;51(2):123-134. [journal impact factor = 1.694; times cited = 20]  

[9] Johnson MW, Garcia-Romeu A, Cosimano MP, Griffiths RR. Pilot study of the 5-HT2AR agonist psilocybin in the treatment of tobacco addiction. J Psychopharmacol. 2014;28(11):983-992. [journal impact factor = 4.738; times cited = 280]  

[10] Bogenschutz MP, Forcehimes AA, Pommy JA, Wilcox CE, Barbosa PC, Strassman RJ. Psilocybin-assisted treatment for alcohol dependence: a proof-of-concept study. J Psychopharmacol. 2015;29(3):289-299. [journal impact factor = 4.738; times cited = 308]

 

Image Credits: CostaPPPR, CC BY-SA 3.0; Septfontaine, CC BY-SA 3.0; Gruban, CC BY-SA 2.0

About the author

Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.

Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.

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