Cultural History of Psychedelic Mushrooms

Psychedelic mushrooms have been around for thousands of years, and have long been a source of fascination and pleasure for many different cultures. Before making their way into Western societies in the 1960s, psilocybin mushrooms were an essential part of religion, therapeutic rituals, and rite-of-passage ceremonies all over the world, some of which still use them today.

AFRICA: The First Signs of Psychedelics
Indigenous cultures in northern Africa are said to be some of the first people to consume psychedelic mushrooms. Deep in the mountains of Tassili, Algeria, ethereal rock paintings dating back to 4,000-7,000 BCE have been linked to some of the earliest use of psychedelics. Many of the figures in these paintings have abnormally large heads, some are missing body parts, and others appear to be leaving their bodies or floating into the sky. Some even have mushrooms growing from their hands, arms, or legs.

Researchers have linked these paintings, known historically as part of the “Roundhead Period,” to sacred Shamanistic rituals and consciousness-altering mushrooms. Psychedelic effects – like intense visuals and trance-like states – allowed people to “talk to the gods” as their mind expanded and they explored a new level of connection to nature. This mind-expanding property of psychedelics is key to understanding why they became a cornerstone of so many religious rituals and a path to explore the subconscious.

CENTRAL AMERICA: The Cornerstone of Psychedelic Rituals
Thousands of years after those paintings were made in Algeria, the people of Aztec and Mixtec cultures created entire temples dedicated to mushroom gods, where spiritual practices and ceremonies were carried out with the help of psychedelics.

These temples are located in what is now Guatemala and Mexico, where archaeologists have also found mushroom motifs and stones, suggesting mushrooms played a large role in their consciousness-expanding rituals.

This is also where R. Gordon Wassman traveled in the 1950s to meet a mushroom shaman of the indigenous Mazatec Indian tribe. In an article he wrote for Time Magazine, he described his experience as such:

“The visions were not blurred or uncertain. They were sharply focused, the lines and colors being so sharp that they seemed more real to me than anything I had ever seen with my own eyes. I felt that I was now seeing plain, whereas ordinary vision gives us an imperfect view; I was seeing the archetypes, the Platonic ideas, that underlie the imperfect images of everyday life. The thought crossed my mind: could the divine mushrooms be the secret that lay behind the ancient Mysteries? Could the miraculous mobility that I was now enjoying be the explanation for the flying witches that played so important a part in the folklore and fairy tales of northern Europe? These reflections passed through my mind at the very time that I was seeing the visions, for the effect of the mushrooms is to bring about a fission of the spirit, a split in the person, a kind of schizophrenia, with the rational side continuing to reason and to observe the sensations that the other side is enjoying. The mind is attached by an elastic cord to the vagrant senses.”

This article was one of several published accounts that had a profound effect on popularizing mushrooms in Western Society, but some independent researchers had been exploring them already.

The Western World: Mushrooms in Western Societies
In 1914, a botanist who went by the name “Mr. W”, consumed a psilocybin mushroom for research purposes. He related some of the effects to hashish and even opium, specifically the vivid colors and multiplying visuals. Some of the first symptoms he noticed, which he recapped in an issue of Science Magazine, included difficulty collecting his thoughts, as well as time disorientation and feeling like short tasks took much longer.

Soon, “Mr. W” started to find mundane things funny, noticing it becoming more difficult to control his laughter – bordering on hysteria. This was when he started to notice objects and patterns shape-shifting, slowly distorting and turning into new visuals as his mind expanded. As he started to come down he began laughing some more, before his body went back to normal about 6 hours later. He says there were no negative effects like headaches or digestive issues, and that he felt fine once the trip was completed.

40 years later, R. Gordon Wasson visited Mexico for his shroom experience, which introduced psilocybin and psychedelics to the Western public for the first time. Five years later, Swiss scientist Albert Hoffman, the man responsible for inventing LSD, successfully synthesized psilocybin while working for a pharmaceutical company.

Around the same time, a Harvard Professor of Psychology named Timothy Leary heard about Wasson’s experiment and traveled to Mexico for an experience of his own. When he returned from his trip, Leary teamed up with another professor, Dr. Richard Alpert, to start the Harvard Psilocybin Project.

The goal of this project, which officially kicked off in August of 1960, was to study different applications of psilocybin mushrooms and put some science behind its medicinal, therapeutic, and healing potential.

The pair used prisoners to test psilocybin and see if it had an impact on recidivism rates – the number of inmates who re-commit crimes. Six months after the treatment was conducted, the recidivism rate of those who took psilocybin was 40% lower than anticipated.

They also tested psilocybin on graduate divinity students to test those who were more likely to already have strong spiritual connections to the world. Nearly every student who participated said it was a profoundly spiritual experience.

In a follow-up study 25 years later, the majority claimed that their experience with psychedelic shrooms had a lasting positive effect on their life. Despite these incredible findings, Harvard wasn’t as keen on the research of Leary and Alpert, and they pair fired from the school.

This action halted their research and discouraged others from continuing on with it. The pair used their newfound freedom to introduce psilocybin to the public, which kicked off the psychedelic movement of the 1960s.

Backlash to the Counterculture
Psilocybin was federally banned in 1968, and all research came to a halt by 1977. This prohibition was not founded in any negative effects that psilocybin has, but rather it’s proximity to the anti-government, free-love movements of the 1960s. Some government officials saw the drug as fuel for the movement, and it was swiftly labeled as a Schedule I narcotic – effectively making its use and possession illegal.

The Mushrooms Rebound
It wasn’t until the late ‘90s that psychedelic mushroom research slowly started to come back, and small studies were underway to determine its effects on mental and physical health. Many universities and institutions are now studying psilocybin and other psychoactive substances found in mushrooms, and much of the research is showing great potential.

Psilocybin has demonstrated the potential for helping to treat depression, OCD, PTSD, and end-stage cancer anxiety. Plus, it has been found to be a powerful component of anti-addiction therapy. You can read more about the latest research and the medical benefits of psilocybin on our health benefits of psychedelic mushrooms page!