In The Field

SAA: The archaeology of intoxication

Meeting planners were smart and put the session on ‘the archaeology of intoxication’ in a relatively large room in the convention center. It attracted an early-afternoon crowd who were probably looking forward to a little bit of every archaeologist’s favorite intoxicant – alcohol – by the end of the day.

One thing that soon became clear is just how many ways ancient peoples dreamed up to get high. Ancient Peruvians took a version of snuff. Native Americans of the American Southwest and Mexico experimented with all sorts of mind-altering cacti, including but not limited to the famous peyote buttons. The Maya regularly administered enemas of hallucinogenic substances. Pretty much everywhere archaeologists look, they find more evidence like this.

Sean Rafferty, of the University of Albany in New York, reported on some work about how Native Americans of eastern North America used mind-altering substances. Tobacco, it turns out, was king. It may have actually been one of the first tended crops on the continent, he suggests – traces of nicotine decay products are present in two smoking pipes, from West Virginia and Vermont, that dated between 500 BC and 300 BC. Yet alcohol use didn’t take off until much later in the New World.

In other words, early North Americans were apparently too busy smoking to take up drinking.

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