Publication in Economic Botany

Based on critical responses to my ritualized mind alteration hypothesis of the origins of symbolic cognition in early human evolution, I was led to consider the possible availability of psychoactive substances in African and European prehistory. This led to a fruitful collaboration with Guzmán and Guzmán-Dávalos, who are experts on the genus Psilocybe. The result of our work has just been released in Economic Botany (click on title below for a preprint PDF).

On the origin of the genus Psilocybe and its potential ritual use in ancient Africa and Europe

Tom Froese, Gastón Guzmán, and Laura Guzmán-Dávalos

The role of altered states of consciousness in the production of geometric and figurative art by prehistoric cultures in Africa and Europe has been hotly debated. Helvenston and Bahn have tried to refute the most famous hypothesis, Lewis-Williams’ neuropsychological model, by claiming that appropriate visual hallucinations required the ingestion of LSD, psilocybin, or mescaline, while arguing that none of these compounds were available to the cultures in question. We present here mycological arguments that tell another story. A prehistoric worldwide distribution of the mushroom genus Psilocybe, and therefore of psilocybin, is supported by the existence of endemic species in America, Africa, and Europe, the disjunct distribution of sister species, and the possibility of long-distance spore dispersal. It is more difficult to point to instances of actual prehistoric ritual use in Africa and Europe, but there are a growing number of suggestive findings.

Selva Pascuala mural

Selva Pascuala mural, Spain

Seminar: The role of ritualized mind alteration in the origins of the symbolic mind

I have been invited to give a seminar as part of the Biweekly Colloquium of the Graduate School “Human Development in Landscapes” at the University of Kiel, Germany. The seminar will take place this afternoon, 16:00 – 18:00 Uhr; Building and room LS1 – R.204, Leibnizstrasse 1.

The role of ritualized mind alteration in the origins of the symbolic mind: A new perspective from cognitive science

Tom Froese

The potential roles of altered states of consciousness and hallucinations for the early stages of human prehistory have been hotly debated. Recently, this debate has become caught up in disputes about how such altered states could have been induced and what kind of hallucinations might have been experienced. In this article I first sidestep these issues in order to return to the big question of why we might expect such states and experiences to have been important in the first place. I draw on ongoing developments in the cognitive sciences to provide several interdependent reasons for hypothesizing that they played an essential role in the origins and evolution of the symbolic human mind. Finally, I show that this hypothesis is unaffected by current disputes about the potential availability of certain psychoactive substances in prehistoric Africa and Europe.

Selected reading material:

Froese, T. (2013). Altered states and the prehistoric ritualization of the modern human mind. In C. Adams et al. (Eds.), Breaking Convention: Essays on Psychedelic Consciousness (pp. 10-21). London: Strange Attractor Press

Froese, T. (2015). The ritualised mind alteration hypothesis of the origins and evolution of the symbolic human mind. Rock Art Research, 32(1), 90-97

Froese, T., Woodward, A., & Ikegami, T. (2013). Turing instabilities in biology, culture, and consciousness? On the enactive origins of symbolic material culture. Adaptive Behavior, 21(3), 199-214