According to the Telegraph, the best guess for the mind altering substance involved is cohoba, a psychedelic substance produced from the ground seeds of the cojóbana tree. According to a quick surf around the web, cojóbana is likely a common name for Anadenathera peregrina, a tree native to both the Caribbean and South America, which also happens to be a good source of dietary calcium (the miracles offered by Mother Nature never cease).
There’s lots we could say about this piece. One of the interesting comments I found on the website, Addiction Inbox:
Richard Davenport-Hines, author of “The Pursuit of Oblivion,” and a former history professor at the London School of Economics, told The Times: “Drug use became widespread in many early agriculture-based societies simply because it was the only way people could cope with spending long hours working in the fields, often in horrible conditions like baking sun.”
I find the quote interesting because it seems to come out of a particular contemporary understanding of the motivations for using mind-altering substances: life is boring so people either want to numb their pain or get ‘high’ (as compared to their normal ‘low’ state).
Other sites that have commented on this news item have put forward the interpretation that the hallucinogen use must have been connected to shaminism or spiritual activities. Although I may find this explanation more plausible than the life-is-too-hard interpretation simply because I suspect the intensity of agriculture in the Caribbean was likely not as demanding as Davenport-Hines suggests and because use for spiritual pursuits is a widespread pattern in the Americas (although so is coca-eating to deal with hunger, but a bit less widespread geographically).
The Telegraph and some other sources are playing up the whole ‘Stone Age’ angle; who can blame them. The puns practically write themselves (‘Stoned Age’ seems to be a favourite).
But one of the recent articles by the research team focused on the question of trade and inter-island traffic in material goods. Fitzpatrick and colleagues (forthcoming, 2008) suggest that analysis of the bowls and ‘paraphernalia’ (that sounds so sordid) indicate that they were being brought from elsewhere, as the volcanic materials used to produce some of them could not be found on the islands where they were excavated. The team discusses the possibility that they were ‘heirlooms,’ judging from the date of their fabrication and the settlement of Carriacou, where three samples studied closely were found:
Although the luminescence data are inadequate for dating the samples very precisely, they are robust enough to demonstrate that at least two of these samples, and probably the third, date earlier than the settlement of Carriacou, known from an extensive suite of radiocarbon ages ….
In some cases, the gap between fabrication and eventual deposition (in artifact collections many many miles away) may be several hundred years. Not just heirlooms, in other words, but multi-generational heirlooms. This also supports the idea, in my opinion, that this drug use was possibly ritual-associated (rather than the numb-the-pain sort), as it seems more likely that something important would be preserved over such a long period of time.
But what I’m struck by, in all of this, is the actual difficulty in understanding from the material remains what impact this particular drug use might have had within this pre-historic population. Although I might dismiss Davenport-Hines’ ‘miserably bored farmers’ theory, the truth is that I simply don’t know, and we can’t really tell from the drug itself (even if we were 100% confident of what they were taking) how the drug would have affected the population because we don’t know how, in what quantities, and in what settings it was being taken. The longevity of the artifacts and the distances that they were transported let us know that the use was important enough to justify treating the ceramics with care, but we don’t know if that was from extreme dependence or ritual rarity. We don’t know if the material survived because snuff bowls were widespread or because they were used by specialists and carefully guarded.
I had to laugh because the writers seem to project their own expectations — ‘stoned age’ or ‘self-medicating sufferers’ — onto these objects which offer all sorts of clues about the people who used them (including who they might have been trading with and the kinds of designs that were associated with hallucinogen use), but we don’t know the basic conditions under which the drug was taken, so we can’t know its effects.
Scott M. Fitzpatrick, Quetta Kaye, James Feathers, Jennifer A. Pavia, and Kathleen M. Marsaglia. Forthcoming (2008). Evidence for inter-island transport of heirlooms: luminescence dating and
petrographic analysis of ceramic inhaling bowls from Carriacou, West Indies. Journal of Archaeological Science doi:10.1016/j.jas.2008.08.007 (Available online — abstract and link to article).
Illustration from the Fitzpatrick et al.  article, p. 5 in the online proofs.