Did psychedelic mushrooms and group sex play a role in human evolution?

Psychedelic mushrooms may be the explanation to how the human neocortex experienced a dramatic evolutionary change from early hominids to homo sapiens.  

Did psychedelic mushrooms and group sex play a role in human evolution?
Photo credit: Kseniya Avimova / AFP / GettyImages

Psychedelic drugs “expand" one's mind: this is how many people describe the changes in sensory experiences elicited by psychotropic drugs. A psychedelic trip can be good or bad, but it ultimately ends once the drug's effects wear off. According to the American ethnobotanist Terence McKenna, however, psilocybin-containing “magic" mushrooms had a profound and lasting influence on the course of human evolution.


“The great embarrassment to evolutionary theory is the human neocortex," says McKenna. He argues that there is no explanation for how such a major organ was dramatically transformed in complexity in a narrow window of time to create the jump from hominids to humans.

What lit “the fire of intelligence"? McKenna's answer lies in the hominid's diet. He essentially thinks that “we ate our way to higher consciousness."

McKenna's “Stoned Ape" theory of human evolution breaks the process into three stages. In stage one, around 40 to 50 thousand years ago, early hominids in Africa, like Homo Erectus, were forced to abandon their canopy-dwelling lifestyle due to the desertification of the African continent. As they were forced to find new sources of food, they followed herds of wild cattle in whose dung they found insects that became part of their diet. Also in the dung were magic mushrooms that often grow in such environments.

As they started to eat these mushrooms in low doses, early hominids improved their visuals acuity and became betters hunters and survivors, giving them an advantage over those who did not consume the shrooms.

Stage Two of how the psilocybin diet impacted the human brain under McKenna's theory took place 20 to 10 thousand years ago, as hominids discovered the aphrodisiac qualities of ingesting the shrooms. According to McKenna, at higher doses, the mushrooms caused increased male potency and led to group sexual activities. “Everyone would get loaded around the campfire and hump in an enormous writhing heap," half-jokingly posits McKenna.

Causing greater genetic diversification, these orgies also had the effect of creating the first societies, where males could not trace paternity and as such did not identify children as personal “property," raising them as a community.

These orgiastic sessions also led to the development of symbolic functions in hominid cognitive abilities via early art creation and dance.

The last stage of how psychedelics changed the brain came from taking higher doses of the mushrooms. McKenna argued that when doses doubled, psilocybin affected the language-forming region of the brain, causing vocalizations that became the raw material for the evolution of language. This also led to the first human religious impulse.

Challenges to McKenna's theories have mainly revolved around the lack of evidence for a number of his assertions. Many scientists have dismissed his ideas as “a story" rather than an explanation based on proven facts. Yet, there has been a growing amount of evidence about the lives of early hominids that provides some corroboration to McKenna's work.

In particular, evidence has been found that Stone Age humans ate mushrooms. German anthropologists discovered mushroom spores on the teeth of a prehistoric woman who lived around 18,700 years ago.

In 2015, the Spanish anthropologist Professor Guerra-Doce published a paper outlining the use of hallucinogenic plants by early humans. Additionally, Neolithic and Bronze cave paintings that resembled psilocybin mushrooms were found in the Italian Alps and in Villar del Humo in Cuenca, Spain.

Cave paintings that feature a row of mushroom-like objects from Villar del Humo, Cuenca, Spain. CREDIT: Giorgio Samorini

Psilocybin mushrooms.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Study helps explain why motivation to learn declines with age

Research suggests that aging affects a brain circuit critical for learning and decision-making.

Photo by Reinhart Julian on Unsplash
Mind & Brain

As people age, they often lose their motivation to learn new things or engage in everyday activities. In a study of mice, MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain circuit that is critical for maintaining this kind of motivation.

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End gerrymandering? Here’s a radical solution

Why not just divide the United States in slices of equal population?

The contiguous U.S., horizontally divided into deciles (ten bands of equal population).

Image: u/curiouskip, reproduced with kind permission.
Strange Maps
  • Slicing up the country in 10 strips of equal population produces two bizarre maps.
  • Seattle is the biggest city in the emptiest longitudinal band, San Antonio rules the largest north-south slice.
  • Curiously, six cities are the 'capitals' of both their horizontal and vertical deciles.
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Surprising Science

Scientists discover why fish evolved limbs and left water

Researchers find a key clue to the evolution of bony fish and tetrapods.

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