Opiates, Cocaine & Fermented Apples: How our ancestors got high for the sake of evolution.

Ever had one of those nights where you’ve had several too many? Maybe you’ve woken up Sunday morning, last night’s makeup smeared across your face, shoes still on, and no recollection of how you even made it back to your bed in one piece? The flashbacks start – distorted images of lines of tequila shots, getting low to Flo-Rida, your new best friends you met in the bathroom that you probably wouldn’t be able to pick out in a line-up. Images of you heading home, coming across a school, passing out in the classroom doorway, waking up to a crowd of scared children.

Okay, maybe not that last part. That’s just creepy. But that is exactly what happened at a country school in Sweden in 2006. But it wasn’t a twenty-something girl after a night on the Scrumpys harassing the innocent children of Sweden.

 

It was a drunk moose.

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That’s right, a drunk moose spent a whole week lurking around the school, hiding in classrooms, charging at the children, and generally acting crazy. When the teachers decided that enough was enough and the bender had to stop, local police were called to the scene. When asked what had caused the moose’s erratic and aggressive behaviour, police commander Jan Caiman pointed to the schools apple trees as the culprit. Piles of fermenting apples were collecting on the ground, enticing the moose with their sweet aroma, and ultimately getting it wasted.

This isn’t a standalone case – Sweden’s problem with drunken moose are well documented, with reported cases of the animals crashing parties at retirement villages, getting caught in trees, and starting orgies in people’s back-gardens. It’s even hypothesised that one was responsible for the murder of a Loftahammer woman, Agnes Westlund.

And it turns out it’s not just moose that like to experiment with mind-altering substances, with several other species of animals being caught engaging in similar behaviour.

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In the canopies of some of the world’s largest rainforests, lemurs and capuchin monkeys have developed a penchant for poisonous millipedes. Gently biting the bugs to provoke them, these animals have been seen rubbing the millipedes all over their fur. The cocktail of defensive chemicals that are released are believed to ward off parasites and disease-carrying mosquitoes, but soon after application the primates drift into a blissful intoxicated trance.

Young dolphins are also known to seek a similar trance-like state, with their drug of choice being the puffer fish. After careful chewing, the agitated puffer fish is manipulated into releasing a powerful nerve toxin, which when consumed causes the dolphin to zone out and float towards the water’s surface. No health-benefits can be associated with this behaviour, leading zoologists to believe that it is purely recreational. In one instance, the dolphins were even seen passing the fish around a circle, a behaviour very similar to a bong being passed around a teenage dorm room.

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A pod of dolphins, potentially looking for their next fix? (GIF is authors own)

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Jaguars are also known to consume the psychoactive leaves of jungle vines, which heighten their senses and make them better at hunting, but also cause them to roll around in a state of ecstasy if they eat too much. It’s a common fact amongst farmers that horses like to overdo it on the Locoweed, a highly intoxicating and addictive plant found in certain farming areas, which over time can cause the animal to lose weight and show signs of depression. Wallabies were recently a topic of a parliamentary hearing in Tasmania, as their continual raiding and destruction of the local poppy fields was detrimentally impacting the production of painkillers. The animals were found devouring the opium laden flowers, getting high as a kite and bouncing around in circles for hours on end.

 

So what about us humans?

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I don’t think I have to tell you that we also like to experiment with mind-altering substances. And this is no recent behaviour, as evidence of substance use has been found dating right back to when early humans originated 200 million years ago. Opiates were used in 4,000 years B.C. in Italy, cocaine was taken 5,000 years ago by Ecuadorians, and evidence of magic mushroom use can be found in areas of Central America from around 500 B.C. The earliest alcoholic beverage was found on pottery shards from 7,000 years B.C. in China’s Henan Province, while 4,000 year old tobacco pipes were exhumed in Argentina.

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Why not combine the two?

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Today, we like these substances so much that roughly $100 billion is spent on illegal drugs each year in America alone, while 86% of people over eighteen drink alcohol. In the words of Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, “our desire to alter our consciousness may be as fundamental as our desires for food, companionship, and sex.”

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But why are we drawn to alcohol and drugs? 

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Surely by now we all know the negative side-effects these substances can have on us. You only have to turn on a TV in New Zealand and the first ad break will tell you to say “Yeah, Nah” to the beersiesBut if the effects of substance use are so detrimental to mankind, why have we been doing it for so long? And how are we still here?

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Say Yah,Nah

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Well, that’s because there are actually many evolutionary advantages to this behaviour.

Let’s go way back, to when the earth began to cool and food became harder to find, and our ancestors were forced to descend from the trees and begin exploring life on the forest floor. For the first time, our ancestors weren’t eating freshly picked fruit, but also the fallen and over-ripe fruit that had hit the ground. Soon after this fruit had fallen, wild yeast would attach itself and begin the fermentation process of the fruits sugars, producing small amounts of ethanol. This is where our thirst for alcohol began, as those that could sniff it out were more likely to find food and therefore more likely to survive to spread their genes.

Further down the evolutionary line, drug use had many social benefits to early humans. The spike in dopamine that comes with drug usage disrupts natural reward circuits in the brain, creating a signal that indicates the arrival of a huge fitness benefit. In simpler terms, drugs helped early humans forget about their stresses, their positive emotions were heightened and their guards were loosened, helping to facilitate group bonding, a necessity for survival during hunting and gathering times. Not only did this effect help in group situations, but it also helped to form pair bonds. Ultimately, drugs probably helped your ancestors get laid.

Many psychoactive substances used by early humans were also found to help increase the users tolerance to the environments temperature fluctuations and give them a much needed boost in energy. This has led to the belief that many drugs were used during long hunting and foraging expeditions, giving humans the ability to find more food in areas with limited resources and increasing their chances of survival.

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So next time you find yourself at the bar, pour one out for your ancestors as a thank you for getting us to where we are today. But, you know, drink responsibly.

SPACE

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