How long have Humans used recreational drugs?

Painting from the time of Ramses III showing the use of the blue lotus.


We think of recreational drugs as being a phenomenon that has emerged relatively recently. However, the use of drugs, other than medicinal purposes, has existed from antiquity. The purpose was sometimes not only for enjoyment but also integrated with religious practice. The recreational use of drugs has been a fairly consistent phenomenon throughout recorded history and most likely much longer.

The use of drugs such as opium likely originated from prehistoric periods, although direct evidence is limited. Remains from Central Asia and across Eurasia’s parts suggest plant residues that resemble cannabis have been found on braziers. In fact, the origin of opium is that it comes from Central Asia, and it liked reached the Near East and Europe in the Neolithic due to migrations of populations such as the Yamnaya. Some early evidence for recreational drug use comes from ancient Mesopotamia (modern Syria and Iraq) and Egypt. At Ebla, in modern western Syria, a kitchen was found in a palace from the mid 3rd millennium BCE. When the ceramics found in the kitchen were analyzed, they were found to contain traces of opium.

The Sumerians may have also cultivated opium and traded it similarly to other commodities. In Cyprus, vessels from the Bronze age, about 3400 years ago, were also found to contain opium (Figure 1). Marijuana was also likely another drug cultivated perhaps as early as the Neolithic period over 5000 years ago. It is possible there were many uses for both opium and marijuana besides only as drugs, whether medicinal or for recreational use. For instance, both marijuana and opium plants can be made into rope.

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