Intoxications And The Oldest Known Mushroom Cult In Africa

So far, the mycoflora of the African continent has been studied only peripherally and remains largely unknown. During the late 1980s, Italian mycologist G. Samorini and Terence McKenna, working independently, found evidence for the oldest known mushroom cult in Africa. Their discoveries were not just sensational, but most surprising as well. On the other hand, it really shouldn't come as a surprise that the oldest traces of human contact with mushrooms were found on the very continent known as the cradle of humanity.

10,000 Years Old

From 9,000 to 7,000 years ago, the area of the Sahara - between Tassili (Southern Algeria), Acacus (Libya) and Ennedi (Chad) - was populated by human beings who created magnificent rock drawings, a pictorial legacy that preserved for posterity impressive images of everyday life. These pictures tell about a time when the Sahara was still a blooming garden, a time when no one even suspected that processes of erosion and desolation, starting about 3,500 B.C., would turn the area into a desert quite hostile to human life.

The rock drawings date from as far back as 10,000 B.C. up to the present. Among the drawings from the Stone Age (7,000-5,000 B.C.), there are those described as typical of the so-called "round head phase". They include pictures of pasture animals as well as evergreen and deciduous trees. On top of a Sahara plateau, at an altitude of 6,500 ft., there exist pictures of mythical beings with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic attributes which are reminiscent of early Mexican images: many scenes depict tiny horned dancers alongside mushrooms. Deities with masks and horns are seen holding mushrooms in their hands; sometimes the mushrooms are shown attached directly to body parts. In addition, those Stone Age artists created images of anthropomorphic beings with mushroom-like heads. There are many other indications pointing toward the existence of a comprehensive mushroom cult.

Among the most striking renditions at Tin-Tazarift, Tassili District (Algeria) is a picture of masked anthropomorphic beings engaged in ecstatic dancing. (See Figure 5, p. 8). This figure, "Anthropomorphic Beings Engaged in Mushroom Dance", includes several dashed lines, which are most interesting, because they connect the mushroom with the center of the head. At the same time, these lines represent a flow of energy, maybe even the mushrooms' influence on the human soul. This picture is clearly indicative of psychotropic mushroom use. It seems quite remarkable that, as early as 9,000 - 7,000 years ago, the head was apparently considered to be the seat of consciousness. By contrast, four or five millennia later, during the European era of classical antiquity, the brain's role was merely thought to be similar to that of a kind of cooler. Other rock drawings also depict mushrooms as being mythologically linked with fish.

These images, then, furnish powerful evidence for the usage of psychoactive mushrooms within a mystical-religious framework. The rock drawings consistently show two kinds of mushroom shapes: one of them resembles Psilocybe semilanceata, in that the caps are drawn with an acute umbo on top, while the other shape represents larger mushrooms with a habitus much like that of the Amanita or Stropharia species.

Despite their age, the rock drawings' colors have retained brilliant hues. Pictures of mushrooms were drawn in white as well as several shades of ochre. Also, a few mushrooms were drawn in blue colors. While this is the exception, it may well be a representation of the so-called bluing phenomenon.

In Nature, these colors are associated with the bluing Psilocybe and Panaeolus species. These mushrooms could have grown on several substrates, such as fallen twigs and raw compost, grounds littered with the remains from evergreen and deciduous trees or dung left behind by pasture animals. Among the mushroom species that may have grown in the area thousands of years ago, the most likely candidates are relatives of Psilocybe cubensis and Panaeolus cyanescens (dung-inhabiting species), Psilocybe semilanceata (a nitrophilic species) as well as Psilocybe cyanescens, a species that grows on top of raw compost.

Considering the impressive nature of existing historic evidence, the obvious question would seem to be whether any of these species can currently be found in Africa, where the cradle of mankind is located.

African Species Related to

Psilocybe Cyanescens?

Interestingly, on October 24, 1912, R. Maire first collected several specimens of bluing, dark-spored mushrooms which he found growing on raw compost underneath some cedar trees in Algeria, at Chrea Pass near the city of Blida south of Algiers. He collected additional specimens every year up until 1926 and published his findings in 1928, naming the species Hypholoma cyanescens nov. spec..

Later on, G. Malencon classified a number of similar specimens from his own samples collected in the Central Atlas Mountains (Morocco) as belonging to this species. In 1973, Singer then classified the species as Psilocybe mairei Sing. Krieglsteiner, however, considered this species to be identical with Psilocybe cyanescens Wakefield, as found in Europe. Thus, bluing Psilocybe species can still be found in Africa today.

In his monograph on Panaeolus mushrooms from the 1960's, Ola'h mentions two Panaeolus species that are strongly psychoactive:

- Panaeolus africanus Ola'h and

- Panaeolus tropicales Ola'h

There are also accounts from Africa about typical hallucinatory intoxications, caused by mistaken identification of a yellow Stropharia species as a culinary mushroom. In 1945, E.R. Cullinan and D. Henry described 22 cases in

Nairobi, which occurred in July of that same year.

The symptoms started one hour after ingestion of the mushrooms, peaked within three hours and then persisted for 24 to 48 (?) hours. Symptoms consisted of emotional imbalance, fits of mirthful and irresponsible laughter alternating with depressive moods, during which patients felt they wanted to die. Patients were unable to sleep, due to nightmarish feelings that descended when they closed their eyes... They remained conscious throughout the experience and their speech, while somewhat uncontrolled, was rational.

In 1957, A.D. Charters reported additional cases of intoxication from Nairobi: On May 18, 1949, a man and his wife - both Europeans who resided in Nakuru, ate generous portions of mushrooms for lunch. Within 30 minutes, both of them developed mental symptoms, along with pupil dilation and a tingling sensation in the fingers.

The man experienced visions of pink colors and a sense of euphoria in association with delusions. He felt that he was passing into the next life and he could see his own body. He stated that he realized "we are in the process ofworking toward our next life

His wife also reported delusions, and she felt that she was inside the tube that was part of the apparatus used for pumping her stomach at the time. She believed that she was going to die and she was afraid of death. She had laughing fits and felt sensations that alternated between happiness and depression. Both patients had their stomachs pumped and recovered completely within six hours.

Given sufficiently wet climate conditions, Psilocybe cubensis can often be found in other parts of the world growing on pastures in areas located up to 30° north as well as south of the equator. Therefore, it is likely that the yellow Stropharia species from the Highlands of Kenya may actually have been Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms or at least a close relative of this species.

In January 1994, M. Smith and myself were collaborating in South Africa, where we discovered a bluing Psilocybe species in Natal Province. It was the first psychotropic Psilocybe species ever found in the area. This species is generally withish in color and does not have an annular ring. The mushrooms are comparable in size to Psilocybe cubensis, but do not grow directly on top of dung in cow pastures. Having been compared with samples of known Psilocybe species, the new species is currently being published under the name Psilocybe natalensis Gartz, Reid, Ecker & Smith.

The mushroom samples and reports of intoxications described in this chapter indicate that psychoactive species do occur in Africa, which, in turn, supports the hypothesis of an ancient mushroom cult on the African continent. However, additional work is needed with respect to the African species, including their areas of distribution, their taxonomic classification and the essence of their active ingredients.

Figure 59 - Outline of a rock drawing from Tassili, Algeria (ca. 7,000 B.C.). The figure on the left clearly is holding a mushroom-shaped object.
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