Previous: How to Make the World's Simplest Motor: SciShow Experiments
Next: The Most Beautiful Science of 2012



View count:1,599,302
Last sync:2024-06-12 23:15


Citation formatting is not guaranteed to be accurate.
MLA Full: "3 Weird Ways Olde Tyme People Got High." YouTube, uploaded by SciShow, 31 January 2013,
MLA Inline: (SciShow, 2013)
APA Full: SciShow. (2013, January 31). 3 Weird Ways Olde Tyme People Got High [Video]. YouTube.
APA Inline: (SciShow, 2013)
Chicago Full: SciShow, "3 Weird Ways Olde Tyme People Got High.", January 31, 2013, YouTube, 03:30,
Humans have been processing plants for their narcotic effects for at least 5000 years, historically for ceremonial purposes, to deal with harsh environmental conditions or difficult situations, and sometimes even to supplement nutrient-poor diets. Michael tells you about some of the strange "natural" things our ancestors used to alter their minds, but he can't promise they're not going to be gross.

Like SciShow?
Follow SciShow?
T*mbl SciShow.

References for this episode can be found in the Google document here:
Every generation of rebellious kids thinks that they were the first to discover mind-altering drugs. But nope, humans have been processing plants like coca, mescal beans, and peyote cacti for their narcotic effects for at least five thousand years. And some scientists believe human ancestors have been using drugs of one sort or the other for hundreds of thousands of years. Drugs have historically been used for ceremonial purposes, to help folks deal with harsh environmental conditions or crappy situations, and sometimes even to supplement nutrient-poor diets. And sometimes they've even been consumed accidentally, which sucks. As you'll see.

(Intro music plays)

These days, drug dabblers have all sorts of fancy synthetic chemicals to make them feel weird, but our ancestors turned to nature for their next fix. So what were our ancestors using to alter their minds? Well, I'll tell you about some of them, but I can't promise they're not going to be... gross.

One: stone age drug paraphernalia. You can tell how serious people are about their drugs based on how well they take care of their drug paraphernalia. And the people who colonized the west indies around fifteen hundred years ago took their drugs pretty seriously, as evidenced by the fact that they carried their heirloom drug kits from mainland South America to their new home, over four hundred miles away. These ceramic bowls and tubes were probably used for inhaling the hallucinogen cohoba.

Two: Ergot of rye. I can't imagine anything quite as unpleasant as doing drugs when you're not aware you're doing drugs. Such as long been the case with ergot of rye, a fungus that infects a variety of grains we eat all the time. The fungus itself resembles a little black grain of wheat which grows out of the head of the stalk of grass, just like the actual cereal seeds do. But unlike wheat berries, ergot contains lysergic acid, a powerful psychedelic compound, and the main ingredient in lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. Ergots also produce alkaloids, chemical compounds found in recreational drugs like opium, but also plant based poisons like belladonna and strychnine. Ergot alkaloids are pretty toxic to humans and other mammals, even if taken in moderate quantities, and they can cause a lot of horrible side effects like gangrene, miscarriage, and total out-of-your-mind trippin'.

So, throughout history, ergot outbreaks have happened in agricultural communities. People would just go bat crap crazy all of the sudden. No wonder people started blaming witchcraft.

Three: Reindeer, mushrooms, and men. There's a lot of folklore surrounding the fly agaric mushroom, the psychoactive toadstool found all over the northern hemisphere. It's basically the mushroom you picture when someone says "mushroom". And they're pretty poisonous, but that hasn't stopped shamans in different cultures from using them in religious rituals since time immemorial. Take the Saami, the indigenous people of Scandinavian north western Russia. They devised an ingenious way of getting rid of the toxins. They filtered them through their reindeer. Turns out reindeer really love fly agaric mushrooms. And though it's tough to know whether they actually make them high, reindeer go to town on them. They'll even paw through snow to get a good hallucinogenic toadstool. And those Saami shamans would sometimes take one for the team and eat the mushrooms themselves, rather than risk dying, the Saami did something kind of neat. They let the reindeer eat the mushrooms, and then harvested the uh... byproducts.

The psychedelic compounds in the mushrooms just passed right through the reindeer, so the Saami people collected the urine and drank it. And enjoyed themselves. Win-win for everyone, reindeer and humans alike, unless you consider drinking pee not a win-win.

Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow. If you have any questions or suggestions, you can leave them on Facebook or Twitter, or down in the comments below. If you want to keep getting smarter with us, you can head on over to and subscribe. Don't do drugs.