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The History of "Magic Mushrooms"

The use of mind-altering mushrooms, commonly known as "Magic Mushrooms" or "Shrooms" has pervaded human society since long prior to the birth of civilization approximately 6000 years ago, and potentially even multiple hundreds of thousands of years into antiquity. The earliest concrete evidence consists of rock etched murals depicting mushroom iconography found in Northern Australia - with archaeologists and geologists suggesting the psychedelic-themed illustrations date to 10,000 B.C.E. While there is no hard evidence supporting earlier use it’s logical to assume humans have consumed psychoactive fungi since homo sapiens became evolutionarily distinct.

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other images shown here are recreations of other early human rock art resembling mushrooms or a psychedelic experience.

*this image, known as the "Bee Headed Mushroom Shaman" is one of the best known examples of ancient 'psychedelic art'

This premise, that the human use of psychedelics predates civilization, is defensible for two reasons; 

 

 

Another premise, which is decidedly more outlandish, but not completely implausible states that psychedelic substances, along with many other factors (like cooking with fire) were a catalyst for a doubling of human brain size in, from an evolutionary perspective, an extremely short period. Psilocybin (the active compound in psilocybe mushrooms) has been shown by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to create a state of hyperconnectivity between brain networks, foster an increase in neurogenesis (the creation of brain cells) and drastically alter thought pathways. The culmination of these effects may have allowed early hominids who ingested Psilocybe mushrooms to “think outside the box”, have increased visual and sensory acuity, and share deeper connection/communication with those around them. 


These assumptions linking mushrooms to expedited human evolution are central components of The Stoned Ape Hypothesis, put forth by legendary ethnobotanist and psychonaut Terence McKenna. Mckenna argues that over the course of time, ingesting psilocybin occasioned both technological advancements & the genesis of evolutionarily advantageous ideas like language, religion/spirituality, & cultural tradition.

Recorded History

Returning to the (comparatively) recent past, it has been repeatedly documented that tribal societies across the globe revere psychedelic mushrooms and have used them in spiritual and therapeutic context for millenia


Various forms of indigenous Central American artwork indicate they thought these mushrooms were a means of communicating with the gods, while their nomenclature gives even more evidence of this. The Nahuatl language used by the Maya and Aztec peoples named these mushrooms Teonanácatl - which literally translates to “flesh of the gods”. Many religious myths of the Aztecs, Maya, and Toltecs are rife with mention of mushrooms and the ephemeral experience they elicit, with some myths even stating they were given to distant ancestors by the serpent god Quetzocoatl - who was worshipped as the creator of life by all of these cultures.

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Mesoamerican mushroom sculptures dating to approximately 1000 B.C.

Indigenous tribes in Siberia also ritualized a hallucinogenic mushroom, the same red and white spotted Amanita Muscaria which reindeer commonly consume. These cultures were and still are known to collect and drink the psychoactive urine of these reindeer, which is significantly less toxic after metabolism by the undulate. This mushroom produces effects markedly different from those of the Psilocybe genus, and unlike mesoamerican use of Psilocybe’s for solely divinatory purpose, Musciaria also had practical applications. Siberians utilized the altered state of consciousness elicited by the Amanita to exceed ‘normal’ physical capacity, and endure inhospitable temperatures through the disassociative effects of Muscimol (the active compound in Amanita Muscaria mushrooms). 

 

It wasn’t only tribal peoples who engaged in the use of psychedelic fungi, philosophically and scientifically advanced ancient civilizations such as the Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks all left evidence suggesting that they too had fondness for psychedelics.

 

In Ancient Greece cults worshipping the goddess Demeter held ritual ceremonies involving the use of a psychoactive brew that possibly contained Ergot fungus (what LSD is derived from) Psilocybe mushrooms, AND Amanita Muscaria mushrooms - which undoubtedly made for an intensely powerful experience. These ceremonies, colloquially known as “The Eleusinian Mysteries” were shrouded in secrecy, at the time bearing the penalty of death for exposing knowledge gained during the rituals. This severe penalty made the ceremonies exclusive, often attended by members of the upper-class and preeminent scholars, artists and philosophers, such as Plato, Homer, and Aristotle.

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Ancient Greek carving depicting the gods Demeter and Persephone holding mushrooms

The Egyptians, similar to mesoamerican societies, created numerous forms of artwork depicting mushrooms, and had vernacular terms for the psychoactive varieties translating to “sons of the gods” or “food of the gods”. They believed that since mushrooms do not sprout from a seed, that they were placed on earth by the god Osiris. Therefore, their consumption was limited to the priesthood and upper classes (who were also thought to be descended from the gods). It has even been theorized by Egyptologist Stephen Berlant that ancient Egyptians cultivated these mushrooms on barley grain, showing how culturally and spiritually significant their use was.

Modern History

The earliest reliable documentation (by a ‘western’ civilization) regarding mushroom intoxication occurred in 1799, and involved a british family who unknowingly picked several Psilocybe Semilanceata (Liberty Caps) from the shores of the Thames river and cooked a meal with them, soon after experiencing typical effects of pupil dilation, hysteria, and euphoria. This spurred the taxonomic classification in 1803 of a new species - which was first named Agaricus Semilanceatus then changed in 1871 to Psilocybe Semilanceata. 


The term “Magic Mushrooms” was introduced nearly 100 years later in a 1957 Life Magazine expose entitled “seeking the magic mushroom”. The piece was written by banker and hobby mycologist R. Gordon Wasson who in 1955 along with his wife Valeria were among the first “westerners” allowed to participate in an indigenous mushroom ceremony, guided by the famous shaman Maria Sabina. Their experience took place in the small village of Huautla de Jiménez in Oaxaca Mexico, and profoundly affected Wasson, who went to great lengths publicizing it, and stated that it was one of the most profound experiences of his life. 

 

News quickly proliferated and attracted the attention of figures like Albert Hoffman (the chemist most famous for discovering LSD) and Roger Heim (the mycologist who confirmed from samples Wasson sent him that the mushrooms were Psilocybe Caryulescens). By 1958 Hoffman (who also received samples) had successfully isolated and identified the compounds psilocybin and psilocin as active ingredients, and produced synthetic versions of both compounds which were sold by Sandoz Pharmaceuticals under the name Indocybin.

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Except from the LIFE magazine article "Seeking the Magic Mushroom" By R. Gordon Wasson

The popular LIFE article also piqued the interest of Harvard professor Timothy Leary, who was inspired to travel deep into the Mazatec region of Mexico and experience these mushrooms for himself. Upon returning to Harvard, and with the help of Richard Alpert (who later underwent a spiritual awakening and changed his name to Ram Dass) founded the infamous Harvard Psilocybin Project. Due to their personal experiences Leary and Alpert had high aspirations for psilocybin, believing that it could solve the emotional problems of “the western man”. This project acquired (legal at the time) pharmaceutical grade psilocybin from Sandoz and used it to conduct a number of experiments; from administering to prison inmates in an attempt to reduce recidivism, to dosing Harvard students in an attempt to elicit a divinatory or spiritually significant experience (which most of the subjects had). 

 

Although the project had ethical motivations and honorable intentions, there were many concerns regarding safely, administration protocols, and abuse of power over students (graduate students in leary’s classes were required to participate in order to pass). These concerns were aggravated in 1961 when two students ended up in hospital after a negative psilocybin experience, and culminated during an internal meeting of Harvard professors on the 14th of march 1962, which was arguably more of a trial for Leary and Alpert. The pair were accused of abusing the substances they were researching and reprimanded, but were allowed to continue research on the condition that they remained sober. In the spring of 1963 the pair was caught giving psychedelics to undergraduates, although only graduate students were allowed to participate in the project. Leary and Alpert were both dismissed, and left Harvard to pursue their next venture “The Zihuatanejo Project” - a short lived psychedelic retreat in Mexico to which thousands of people applied, but only a few were selected. 

 

During the 1960s all forms of psychedelic drugs proliferated quickly throughout the countre-culture movement, until their use was banned by the 1971 UN Convention on Psychotropic substances. This convention sought to curb both the rising popularity of these drugs, and the subsequent disillusionment with “the system” which often follows their use. Interestingly (in the case of Psilocybe mushrooms) the convention prohibited the molecule Psilocybin and not the mushrooms themselves. This oversight allowed UN member countries to decide for themselves whether to ban both the psilocybin molecule and Psilocybe mushrooms, leading to a legal double standard that has resulted in the mushrooms remaining legal in multiple nations (notably Brazil and Jamaica).

 

For almost thirty years there was a hiatus in the (legal) research and proliferation of the fungi, ending in 1997 with the first post drug war Psilocybin study conducted at The University of Zurich. A team of researchers led by Dr. Franz Vollenweider explored whether brain function under the influence of psilocybin was consistent with the brain function of chronic schizophrenia patients, finding that these brain states were significantly contrasted. They also found that psilocybin increased cerebral glucose metabolism (in layman's terms brain activity) in many areas, and had dampening effects on the ego-influenced Default Mode Network. This study catalyzed research at numerous other institutions, like The Heffter Institute, The Beckley Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Toronto. These subsequent studies have found psilocybin to be effective in the treatment of a myriad of psychological conditions, and chronic pain from conditions like cluster headaches and neuralgia. 

 

Over recent years there has also been a substantial increase in the popularity of (although not much research on) a concept called “microdosing” or taking miniscule amounts of a psychedelic substance. A mushroom microdose (typically taken in capsule form) is typically defined as 1/10th of a “macro” or “hallucinogenic” dose, and allows an individual to experience the neurological benefits of psilocybin (like neurogenesis, a hyperconnected brain state, and dampened default mode network) below the threshold of intoxication. There are countless anecdotal reports (which are beginning to be confirmed by studies) that a microdosing routine can improve focus, creativity, problem solving skills, and positively affect both mood and outlook while allowing the user to remain ‘sober’.

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Some of the institutions currently studying Psychedelic substances for the treatment of mental health conditions

This growing body of research around psychedelics, and the apparent safety and efficacy that they possess in treating numerous mental health conditions has fostered a change in sentiment from both the general public, and from all levels of government. This shift in perspective has fuelled activists across North America to push for legal reform around “entheogenic” substances as a whole. Prominent and progressive cities like Denver, Chigaco, Oakland, and Santa Cruz have all decriminalized mushrooms, and there are ballot initiatives underway in more than 100 additional localities, with 3 states (California, Colorado, and New Mexico) considering state-wide decriminalization policies. In Canada, Health Canada has granted several exceptions to terminal patients allowing them to use Psilocybin, has granted several doctors and therapists access to psilocybin for research purposes, and even granted multiple licenses to publicly traded companies wishing to research Psychedelics, or more specifically psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, as a treatment method.

The Future

The potential of decriminalization/legalization and scientifically quantifiable examples of medical benefit raise the important issue of fair access to Psilocybe mushrooms. A prime example of legalization reducing the ability of medical users ability to access the drugs they need is currently unfolding in Canada, where approximately 1 in 4 medical cannabis patients are less easily able to find cannabis post-legalization. This accessibility despite regulation does not come without risks, namely a lack of regulation to ensure consistency and quality, and higher risk of negative experiences as a result of the lack of education on proper administration and dosage.

 

In the coming years we can expect further research and clinical trials (which are currently underway - click here if you want to sign up) corroborating and expanding on the findings of studies already conducted. Exemplification of the efficacy psychedelics possess in treating psychological conditions has served to concrete what shamanistic societies have known for countless generations, while future archaeological discoveries hold the potential to confirm that these substances have exerted effect on our species evolution. 

 

We stand at a pivotal moment in the history of psychedelic mushrooms - on the precipice of ending prohibition and with mushroom use more widespread than ever before. The Psychedelic community (and the greater public as a whole) must now utilize the power of democratic process to enact fair and intelligent policy around Psychedelics, and use the power of the internet (which coincidentally resembles mushroom mycelium) to spread information on the effects, risks, and potential benefits of these profound Fungi.