The Magic Mushroom History – The Roots

The magic mushroom history dates all the way back to ancient times. Although magic mushrooms are gaining popularity relatively recently in western culture, they have been present way beyond our knowledge.

Teonanácatl is the Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) name for psilocybin mushrooms, and it can be roughly translated to“flesh of the gods” reflecting the significance of these mushrooms in Mesoamerican cultures.

There are over 180 varieties of mushrooms that produce psilocybin and psilocin. The majority belongs to the Strophariaceae and Hymenogastraceae families, but The genera Psilocybe and Panaeolus are the most common producers of these alkaloids.

Some of the most well-known species of psilocybin mushrooms include Psilocybe semilanceata, Psilocybe cyanescens, Psilocybe azurescens, and the widely popular Psilocybe cubensis, which has over 200 different strains.

These mushrooms have been used for their intoxicating effects by various cultures, including the Aztecs in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, as well as the Mazatecs and Zapotecs. Magic mushrooms remain a prominent and influential plant variety in the collective cultural imagination.

magic mushroom history

The Origins of Psilocybin

There are over 180 species of mushrooms that contain tryptamine alkaloids psilocybin and psilocin. Among them, the Psilocybe genus stands out with 117 species, followed by Gymnopilus (13 species), Panaeolus (7 species), Copelandia (12 species), Hypholoma (6 species), Pluteus (6 species), Inocybe (6 species), Cnocybe (4 species), and Agrocybe, Galerina, and Mycena with one species each.

Psilocybe is the most widespread genus and is commonly found in humid subtropical forests, with Mexico being the country with the highest variety of psychoactive mushrooms.

Although these mushrooms can be found from Alaska to southern Chile, Australia and New Zealand, Hawaii, Europe, Siberia, Japan, and Southeast Asia, their geographical distribution is not precisely established. That’s the reason why magic mushroom history is so interesting and versatile.

Ancient Mushrooms

People all around the world have been using various types of magic mushrooms since ancient times. These mushrooms have been highly revered by indigenous groups, who have utilized them in their magico-religious rituals to establish connections with the spiritual world, communicate with the spirits of the deceased, and acquire knowledge and healing.

The oldest known evidence of mushroom use, although not entirely conclusive, can be seen in a mural located in Tassili, a region in the Sahara desert in southeastern Algeria. The mural dates back to between 7000 and 9000 BCE, and features depictions of mushrooms as well as anthropomorphic figures holding mushrooms. Some experts believe that the depicted mushrooms could be Psilocybe mairei, a known species found in Algeria and Morocco. However, there are also doubts about the authenticity of these paintings.

The Selva Pascuala mural, located in Cuenca, Spain, dates back to the Upper Paleolithic (6000 BCE) to the Middle Neolithic (4000 BCE) periods and features depictions of mushrooms as well. It’s speculated that these mushrooms may be Psilocybe hispanica and Psilocybe semilanceata. The mural also includes representations of bulls, leading some researchers to suggest a connection between the habitat of these mushrooms and their growth in bovine feces.

The Selva Pascuala Cave Painting mural
The Selva Pascuala Cave Painting

Magic Mushroom History In the New World

Pre-20th century

Different groups in the New World have used and continue to use psilocybin mushrooms, particularly various Mexican ethnic groups including the Mazatecs, Mixitecas, and Zapotecs. Artifacts in the shape of mushrooms have been discovered dating back to the pre-classical and classical Mayan periods in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, between 500 BCE and 900 CE, suggesting that ancestral knowledge of the use of psilocybin mushrooms existed. The first documented reports in the magic mushroom history of its use come from an indigenous person named Tezozomoc, who wrote in Spanish in 1598 about the use of intoxicating mushrooms during the celebration of the coronation of Moctezuma II in 1502, during the Aztec civilization.

In 1799, a British family had a picnic on the banks of the Thames and unknowingly collected and ate several psilocybe mushrooms, unaware of the effects that will later take place. As a consequence of this little incident, the taxonomic classification of magic mushrooms was given the name Agaricus Semilanceatus. Later, in 1871, it was changed to Psilocybe Semilanceata.

Post 20h century

Ethnobotanists, Richard Schultes and Blasius Reko conducted groundbreaking work in Huautla de Jiménez, Oaxaca, in 1938. They obtained and identified three different varieties of visionary mushrooms, leading to the rediscovery of the traditional use of psilocybin mushrooms in the New World. A year later, in 1939 they published their findings in the Leaflets of Harvard University Botanical Museum.

More than a decade later, Gordon Wasson and his wife Valentina Pavlovna took an interest in the psilocybin mushroom cult in 1952. After reviewing available documents and contacting Schultes, Reko, Johnson, and Weitlaner, they made trips to Huautla de Jiménez. During the summer of 1955, Wasson and his photographer Allan Richardson attended a psilocybin mushroom vigil with Maria Sabina, a Mazatec shaman. They were the first Westerners to experience and report the effects of mushrooms and their traditional uses among Mazatecs.

Categorisation and Naming of Psilocybe Cubensis

The first recorded scientific description of these species was made by American mycologist Franklin Sumner Earle in Cuba in 1906. Earle classified them as Stropharia cubensis. In 1907, pharmacist and mycologist Narcisse Théophile Patouillard found the same species in northern Vietnam, which he identified as Naematoloma caerulescens. In 1941, William Alphonso Murrill discovered the exact same species near Gainesville in Florida and called it Stropharia cyanescens. Finally, in 1949, German-born mycologist Rolf Singer reclassified the species into the genus Psilocybe, giving them the current binomial name Psilocybe cubensis. Additionally, they are sometimes also referred to as Palenque mushrooms.

The name of these mushrooms containing psilocybin comes from the Ancient Greek words psilos (ψιλος) and kubê (κυβη), meaning “bare head.” Cubensis also refers to “coming from Cuba,” in reference to the strain found by Earle in 1906.

Rolf Singer categorized Psilocybe cubensis into three distinct varieties:

  • • The Nominate – having a brownish cap
  • • Murrill’s cyanescens found in Florida – having a pale cap
  • • Var caeurulascens mostly found in Indochina – have a more yellow-toned cap.
fathers of mycology

Scientific Approach to Magic Mushroom History

In 1955, the renowned ethnomycologist Gordon Wasson and his wife dr Valentina Pavlovna Wasson traveled to Central America to learn about the use of magic mushrooms in local practices. They were guided by two shamans, Maria Sabina and Don Aurelio, who introduced them to psilocybin and its profound effects.

Wasson and Valeria published their findings in Life magazine in 1957, popularizing the term “magic mushrooms.” Albert Hoffman, the father of LSD, isolated psilocybin and psilocin, the active compounds in magic mushrooms, after Wasson sent him samples he collected in Central America. Sandoz Pharmaceuticals created a synthetic version of psilocybin called Indocybin.

Gordon Wasson’s article inspired Harvard professor Timothy Leary and Dr. Richard Alpert to start the infamous Harvard Psilocybin Project. They conducted experiments with Sandoz’s pharmaceutical-grade psilocybin to see if it could solve emotional problems. The studies yielded promising results, with psilocybin successfully treating major depressive disorder, anxiety, PTSD, and OCD.

However, these studies were short-lived. Just 30 years later, the government placed a ban on psilocybin, starting the dark age for this miraculous substance.

Maria Sabina
María Sabina

The Dark Age for Psilocybin

After initially showing interest in researching psychedelic substances, the US government ultimately dismissed the potential benefits of these drugs with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, signed into law by President Nixon. Some suggest that Nixon’s anti-drug stance was less about public safety and more about targeting specific demographics, such as Black people and anti-war hippies. Nixon’s advisor, John Ehrlichman, admitted that the government associated hippies with marijuana and Black people with heroin, criminalizing both to disrupt these communities.

The Controlled Substances Act created five schedules to classify drugs based on their potential for abuse, accepted medical use, safety, and potential for addiction. Schedule I drugs, including LSD, magic mushrooms, cannabis, and heroin, were categorized as having a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use, making them illegal overnight. This act launched the “War on Drugs,” which was popularized by the media after a 1971 press conference where Nixon referred to drug abuse as “public enemy number one.” The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) was later created in 1973.

During Reagan’s presidency, MDMA, the active component of street drugs like “Molly” and “Ecstasy,” was added to Schedule I, despite its potential as a powerful adjuvant to psychotherapy.

magic mushroom prohibition

Light at the End of The Tunnel

After a thirty-year hiatus, research on psilocybin resumed in the late 1990s. The University of Zurich began investigating the therapeutic potential of psilocybin mushrooms in 1997 and discovered that psilocybin can boost brain activity, in addition to potentially treating various psychological disorders and chronic pain.

These encouraging results have led to a push for decriminalization and legalization across the country.

magic mushroom healing

The Bottom Line

The history of psilocybe mushrooms goes far back to ancient times, with the oldest evidence dating back to between 7000 and 9000 BCE. These magnificent mushrooms had been traditionally used by various indigenous groups, sharing the wisdom of the universe and helping them heal. In the western world magic mushrooms weren’t so popular until the early 1900s, but since then popularity has been emerging like never before. People are realizing the potential health benefits of these mushroom species.

As every year passes by, it provides us with more evidence from clinical trials and research that in fact, psilocybin is not something to be afraid of, but actually, something that should be embraced. Our civilization is making tremendous progress by decriminalization and even legalizing magic mushrooms, as in the end, they are the fruits of our planet.

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