10 Oldest Drugs Ever Discovered

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Drugs tend to have a negative connotation in today’s society, but drugs have a long history of being used for more than just recreation. Of course, technically all modern medications are drugs, but not all drugs are medication. For the purposes of this list, we chose to cover drugs that have a wide variety of uses beyond medicine. Many of the drugs on this list are used by different cultures in their religious and spiritual ceremonies. Others are used by practitioners of ancient and modern witchcraft.

10. Laudanum

Year Discovered or Earliest Records: 16th century CE
Country or Region of Origin:  Switzerland
Active Ingredients: Papaverine, Codeine
Common Uses: Analgesic (painkiller); Antidiarrheal medicine

Laudanumphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

While the other drugs on this list are natural, Laudanum is one of the earliest man-made drugs. Laudanum, known as tincture of Opium today, contains almost all of the opium alkaloids, including morphine and codeine. Like all opiates, Laudanum was historically used as a pain medication and cough suppressant.

Laudanum was invented in the 16th century by Paracelsus von Hohenheim, a 16th-century Swiss-German alchemist. The process for creating Laudanum was refined in the 17th century by the physician and medical pioneer Thomas Sydenham. It didn’t take long for Laudanum to catch on and people used it to treat everything. Unfortunately, like the opiates available today, Laudanum was highly addictive and used as a recreational drug. Laudanum is still prescribed today, but is highly controlled and only given out in small doses.

Did You Know?

Several famous poets, writers, and artists such as Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron of the 19th century used Laudanum recreationally to fuel their creativity.


9. Coffee

Year Discovered or Earliest Records: c. 13th century CE
Country or Region of Origin:  Southern Arabia (modern-day Yemen)
Active Ingredients: Caffeine and Beta carboline
Common Uses: Food, especially drinks; Energy booster

Coffeephoto source: Wikimedia Commons

Coffee is the world’s favorite legal drug and is the second-most traded commodity in the world, behind oil. Despite humanity’s deep love for coffee, its origins are unknown. There is a popular Ethiopian story floating around wherein coffee is discovered by a goat herder named Kaldi, who found his goats frolicking and full of energy after eating the red fruit of the coffee shrub.

This story is believed to just be a tall tale and the earliest use of coffee as we know it today only dates back to the 13th century CE in southern Arabia (modern-day Yemen). For several centuries, Arabia and Africa held a monopoly on coffee, but it eventually spread to the rest of the world and is now an ubiquitous part of life.

Did You Know?

The caffeine extracted from decaffeinated coffee beans is sold to soda and pharmaceutical companies.


8. Atropa belladonna (Belladonna)

Year Discovered or Earliest Records: c. 4th century BCE
Country or Region of Origin:  Europe, North Africa, and Western Asia
Active Ingredients: Atropine, Scopolamine, and Hyoscyamine
Common Uses: Dietary supplement; Herbal medicine for pain relief; Recreational drug; Poison

Atropa belladonnaphoto source: Wikimedia Commons


Atropa belladonna, better known as Belladonna or Deadly Nightshade, is probably the most famous of the poisonous plants on this list. Despite its reputation as a poison, throughout history, Belladonna has been used as a narcotic, diuretic, sedative, antispasmodic, and mydriatic. Belladonna was even used as cosmetic eyedrops by women in the Renaissance period because it dilated their pupils and made their eyes appear more seductive. Along with some of the other poisonous plants mentioned here, Belladonna was used as an anesthetic and also treated sleeplessness. Today, some prescription drugs contain Belladonna alkaloids such as atropine.

Did You Know?

The Roman military created a deadly paste from Belladonna to make poison-tipped arrows for archers, a practice that was in use for centuries.


7. Datura

Year Discovered or Earliest Records: c. 1000 BCE
Country or Region of Origin:  Species found worldwide
Active Ingredients: Atropine, Scopolamine, and Hyoscyamine
Common Uses: Deliriants; Poison; Ritualistic purposes

Daturaphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

Datura is genus of nine species of poisonous flowering plants belonging to the nightshade family. The sweet-scented and trumpet-shaped flowers are known across the world for their potential as a poison, medicine, and entheogen (ingested for religious or spiritual purposes). Datura are commonly known as thornapples or jimsonweeds, and devil’s trumpets. All species of Datura are poisonous and have psychoactive and hallucinogenic properties. Some cultures still use Datura to alter their state of mind for various rituals.

Did You Know?

Due to its wide variety of traditional uses, the seeds, leaves, flowers, roots, and stems of Datura plants can be ingested, smoked, or converted to a skin ointment.


6. Hyoscamus niger (Black Henbane)

Year Discovered or Earliest Records: c. 1000 BCE
Country or Region of Origin:  Eurasia
Active Ingredients: Tropane alkaloids (e.g. Hyoscyamine and Scopolamine)
Common Uses: Traditional herbal medicine for various pains; Oil used for medicinal massages

photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Black Henbane (Hyoscamus niger) is another poisonous plant that has been used for centuries because of its psychoactive properties. Like a few of the other poisonous plants on this list, Black Henbane is commonly associated with witchcraft. Historically, Black Henbane was mixed with other similar plants to create anesthetic drugs. Black Henbane is still used today in traditional herbal medicine for ailments of the bones, rheumatism, toothache, asthma, cough, nervous diseases, and stomach pain. It is also an analgesic and in some cultures, Black Henbane is used as a narcotic.

Did You Know?

Archaeological evidence suggest that Viking berserkers may have used Black Henbane to induce their legendary trance-like fury used for battle.


5. Amanita muscaria (Fly Amanita)

Year Discovered or Earliest Records: c. 2000 BCE
Country or Region of Origin: 
Active Ingredients: Muscarine, Muscimol, Ibotenic acid, Muscazone
Common Uses: Hallucinogenic; Ritualistic/Religious purposes

Amanita muscariaphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

The exact history of human use of Amanita muscaria or the Fly Amanita is unknown, but it most likely has been used for thousands of years. In fact, Fly Amanita has been considered as the most likely candidate for the mysterious Soma, mentioned in around 150 hymns of the Hindu Rig-Veda. Soma was one of the earliest entheogens, hallucinogenic substances used for religious or shamanic purposes.

Whether or not Fly Amanita was used to make Soma, the plant is used to today as an entheogen by the indigenous peoples of Siberia and by the Sámi. Fly Amanita is also used in food when prepared properly. It has also been suggested that Fly Amanita is used as an intoxicant in other places such as the Middle East, Eurasia, North America, and Scandinavia.

Did You Know?

Fly Amanita, which is easily recognizable due to its bright red caps with white spots, is commonly featured in many aspects of popular culture. Most famously, Fly Amanitas are used in the Mario video game franchise.


4. Mandragora officinarum (Mandrake)

Year Discovered or Earliest Records: c. 2700 BCE
Country or Region of Origin:  Regions around the Mediterranean Sea
Active Ingredients: Atropine and Scopolamine (antimuscarinics), Scopine, Cuscohygrine, Apoatropine, Belladonnines and non-alkaloid constituents including Sitosterol and Scopoletin
Common Uses: Hallucinogenic and Narcotic; Medical drug

photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Mandragora officinarum, the best-known species of mandrake has a long and storied history. It has been used for thousands of years as a poison, in witches’ potions, and also as medicinal herb. The root of a the mandrake has hallucinogenic and narcotic properties. Mandrake was also used as an aphrodisiac. Many fantastical stories surround the mandrake plant, including a popular one from medieval times that states that when a mandrake is pulled from the ground it utters a shriek that can kill or drive people mad if their ears aren’t properly covered. Today, mandrakes are still used in modern pagan traditions like Wicca in their magic rituals.

Did You Know?

Many people believe that the roots of Mandragora officinarum look like human figures, which is why the plant has been associated with a variety of superstitious practices throughout history.


3. Opium

Year Discovered or Earliest Records: c. 3400 BCE
Country or Region of Origin:  Mesopotamia (Asia Minor)
Active Ingredients: Morphine, Codeine, Noscapine, Papaverine, and Thebaine
Common Uses: Recreational drugs (heroin); Medicinal drugs particularly painkillers; Garden plants; Food (poppy seeds)

photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Opiates are some of the most widely available painkillers, especially in the U.S., and while they are very effective, they are also highly addictive. While the opiate addiction crisis is a modern phenomenon, the use of Opium goes back thousands of years. The earliest reference to Opium cultivation and use dates back to around 3400 BCE in Mesopotamia. Opium use eventually spread to the rest of the world through trade. Ancient people used Opium as a sleep aid, painkiller, anesthesia, and probably recreationally. These uses and Opium’s cultivation has not changed much since ancient times.

Did You Know?

Before heroin, an Opium derivative, became an illegal recreational drug, it was advertised by German pharmaceutical company Bayer as a morphine substitute and cough suppressant for adults and children in the late 19th century.


2. Erythroxylon coca

Year Discovered or Earliest Records: c. 6000 BCE
Country or Region of Origin:  South America
Active Ingredients: Cocaine, Benzoylecgonine, Ecgonine
Common Uses: Stimulant; Recreational drug; Tea; Religious purposes

Erythroxylon cocaphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

Erythroxylon coca aka Coca is another ancient drug still used by many people today. Coca originates from western South America (Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, and Argentine Northwest) and is a sacred plant to the area’s indigenous peoples. Archaeological evidence has revealed that Peruvians have been chewing Coca leaves for at least 8000 years. Coca leaves are used as a stimulant in South America, even today.

In its recreational form, Coca is known as cocaine, which is highly addictive and illegal. Unfortunately, cocaine is the second most frequently used illegal drug in the world, after cannabis.

Did You Know?

In 1859, Albert Niemann of the University of Göttingen became the first person to isolate the chief alkaloid of coca, which he named “cocaine.”


1. Cannabis

Year Discovered or Earliest Records: c. 8000 BCE
Country or Region of Origin:  Central Asia
Active Ingredients: Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and Cannabidiol (CBD)
Common Uses: Recreational drug; Medicinal drug; Hemp is used in various industries such as textiles, paper, clothing, etc.; Religious ceremonies

Cannabisphoto source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Some of the earliest evidence of Cannabis use dates back to around 8000 BCE, making it the oldest drug ever discovered. Cannabis is also considered one of humanity’s oldest cultivated crops. Like the other drugs on this list, Cannabis was initially used for medicinal purposes, such as an anesthetic during surgery. When Cannabis made its way over to India, they celebrated it as one of “five kingdoms of herbs … which release us from anxiety.” Cannabis has come a long way and is still widely used around the world both as a medicine and a recreational drug.

Did You Know?

Tombs of nobility from China and Siberia dating to 2500 BCE contain large amounts of mummified psychoactive marijuana.


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