Of the world's 300 honey varieties, none is stranger and more dangerous than mad honey.
- Mad honey is produced by bees who feed on specific species of rhododendron plants, which grow in mountainous regions like those surrounding the Black Sea.
- People have used mad honey for centuries for recreational, medicinal, and military purposes. Low doses cause euphoria and lightheadedness, while high doses cause hallucinations and, in rare cases, death.
- Mad honey is still harvested and sold today, though it's illegal in some nations.
On the mountainsides of Nepal and Turkey, bees produce a strange and dangerous concoction: mad honey.
It's a rare variety of the natural fluid. Compared to the several hundred other types of honey produced around the world, mad honey is redder and slightly more bitter tasting, and it comes from the world's largest honey bee, Apis dorsata laboriosa.
Mad about honey
But what really distinguishes mad honey are its physiological effects. In lower doses, mad honey causes dizziness, lightheadedness, and euphoria. Higher doses can cause hallucinations, vomiting, loss of consciousness, seizures, and, in rare cases, death.
Here's one account of what it's like to take a moderate dose of mad honey, provided by a VICE producer who traveled to Nepal to join mad honey hunters on a harvesting expedition:
"I ate two teaspoons, the amount recommended by the honey hunters, and after about 15 minutes, I started to feel a high similar to weed," wrote David Caprara for VICE.
"I felt like my body was cooling down, starting from the back of my head and down through my torso. A deep, icy hot feeling settled in my stomach and lasted for several hours. The honey was delicious, and though a few of the hunters passed out from eating a bit too much, no one suffered from the projectile vomiting or explosive diarrhea I'd been warned about."
Here's another account from Will Brendza at The Rooster:
"Within 40ish minutes I could feel the honey creeping up on me. The back of my head started to tingle, like I was getting a scalp massage. Then, from within, I felt a warmth around my heart, in my chest and abdomen. Things slowed down a little, and my state of mind became tranquil. By the time we left the restaurant I was feeling good and strange."
"There are no visuals, though. The high is very much a bodily one and a mental one; a warm and relaxed sensation more like a sedative than your conventional psychedelic."
What is mad honey?
The psychoactive effects of mad honey stem not from bees but from what bees feed on in certain regions: a genus of flowering plants called rhododendrons. All species of these plants contain a group of neurotoxic compounds called grayanotoxins. When bees feed on the nectar and pollen of certain types of rhododendrons, the insects ingest grayanotoxins, which eventually make their way into the bees' honey, effectively making it "mad."
Rhododendron ferrugineumCredit albert kok
Bees are more likely to produce mad honey when and where rhododendrons are dominating. The reason has to do with scarcity: With fewer types of plants to feed on, the insects feed almost solely on rhododendrons, so they consume more grayanotoxins. The result is especially pure mad honey.
But accessing honeycombs that contain mad honey can be difficult. One reason is that rhododendrons grow best in higher altitudes, and bees often build their hives on cliffs near the plants, meaning harvesters have to climb mountainsides to harvest the honey.
However, harvesters bold enough to go for the honeycombs stand to profit. The Guardian reported that a kilogram of high-quality mad honey can sell for about $360 in shops around Turkey, while National Geographic noted that a pound of mad honey goes for about $60 on Asian black markets. In general, the value of mad honey is much higher than regular honey.
That's partly because many people believe mad honey has more medical value than regular honey. In the Black Sea region and beyond, people use it to treat conditions like hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, and
sore throat, though the research on the medical benefits of hallucinogenic honey from Nepal and Turkey is unclear.
In northeastern Asia, some buyers believe mad honey treats erectile dysfunction, which might explain why the majority of cases of mad honey poisonings involve middle-aged men, as noted in a 2018 report published in the journal RSC Advances.
How does mad honey affect the body?
Although the medicinal benefits of mad honey aren't clear, what's certain is that humans can be poisoned by consuming too much grayanotoxin-rich honey, which can cause dangerous decreases to blood pressure and heart rate.
Forensic toxicologist Justin Brower elaborated on his blog, Nature's Poisons:
"Grayanotoxins exert their toxicity by binding to sodium ion channels on cell membranes and preventing them from closing quickly, like aconitine. The result is a state of depolarization in which sodium ions are freely flowing into the cells, and calcium influx is on the rise."
This process can lead to a series of symptoms involving increased sweating, salivation, and nausea, Brower said, noting that symptoms typically disappear within 24 hours, as they did for a man in Seattle who suffered mad honey poisoning in 2011. While the exact amount of mad honey it takes to become poisoned depends on the individual and the quality of the honey, the 2018 RSC Advances report noted:
"Consumption of about 15-30 g mad honey leads to intoxication, and symptoms appear after half to 4 [hours]. The level of intoxication not only depends on the amount of mad honey consumed but also on the grayanotoxin concentration in the honey and the season of production. According to Ozhan et al., consumption of one teaspoon of mad honey may lead to poisoning."
Although Turkey records about a dozen cases of mad honey poisonings per year, a 2012 study published in Cardiovascular Toxicology noted that it's rare for people to die from the substance, though cases of animal deaths have been reported.
Mad honey throughout history
The strange effects of mad honey have captivated people near the Black Sea for millennia. One of the oldest accounts comes from 401 BCE, when Greek soldiers were marching through the Turkish town of Trabzon and came across a bounty of mad honey. The Athenian military leader and philosopher Xenophon wrote in his book Anabasis:
"The number of bee-hives was extraordinary, and all the soldiers that ate of the combs, lost their senses, vomited, and were affected with purging, and none of them were able to stand upright; such as had eaten only a little were like men greatly intoxicated, and such as had eaten much were like mad-men, and some like persons at the point of death."
"They lay upon the ground, in consequence, in great numbers, as if there had been a defeat; and there was general dejection. The next day no one of them was found dead; and they recovered their senses about the same hour that they had lost them on the preceding day; and on the third and fourth days they got up as if after having taken physic."
Centuries later, in 67 BCE, Roman soldiers weren't so lucky. As the soldiers pursued King Mithridates of Pontus and his Persian army, they stumbled across mad honey that the Persians had intentionally left behind, intending to use the substance as a bioweapon. Vaughn Bryant, a professor of anthropology at Texas A&M University, explained in a press release:
"The Persians gathered pots full of local honey and left them for the Roman troops to find. They ate the honey, became disoriented and couldn't fight. The Persian army returned and killed over 1,000 Roman troops with few losses of their own."
But mad honey was more often used for nonviolent purposes. People in the Black Sea region have long consumed small amounts of the substance (about a teaspoon's worth), in boiling milk or on its own, both for pleasure and as a folk medicine.
In the 18th century, merchants in the Black Sea region sold honey to the Europeans, who infused liquor with a bit of the substance to enjoy its milder effects.
Mad honey today
Today, beekeepers in Nepal and Turkey still harvest mad honey, though it represents a small fraction of the nations' total honey production. Both countries allow the production, sale, and exportation of mad honey, but the substance is illegal in other nations, like South Korea, which banned the substance in 2005.
While interested buyers in the U.S. can purchase mad honey from countries like Nepal and Turkey, it might be worth sticking with the regular stuff. After all, the handful of experiences posted on the website of the non-profit psychedelic research organization Erowid.org don't sound too enticing.
One user said they "wouldn't even recommend trying it." Another user suffered mad honey poisoning after taking too much, writing that the "symptoms can seem life threatening" and that they hope their report might help "some poor bastard out there not make the same mistake."
The author of "Auroville: The City Made of Dreams" talks about the difficulties of establishing (and writing about) utopian societies.
And is creating alternative realities something only cult leaders do? Stasia Budzisz discussed these and other questions with Katarzyna Boni, whose reportage Auroville: The City Made of Dreams was published in Polish in June 2020.
Stasia Budzisz: You came across one of the communities of Auroville, the city of the future, by accident in 2009. You knew nothing about it, but what you found frightened you, and you decided to run away. What happened there?
Katarzyna Boni: I was travelling alone around the south of India. At some point, I felt that my journey made no sense; all I did was check the landmarks off a list from a travel guide. I figured it was the right moment to try some volunteering. I found a local community that planted trees and decided to join it. And so I ended up in Auroville, although the community was located on the outskirts rather than in the city itself. When choosing a project to volunteer on, I didn't even know I was applying to an Aurovillian community – I just liked the idea of planting trees in exchange for food and shelter. I only learned about Auroville itself from my pocket guide. Two weeks in, I didn't want to stay for a moment longer. I ran away to the Himalayas, at the exact opposite end of India. Several factors had prompted my reaction. First of all, I was at a stage of my life where I was changing jobs. I wasn't yet in my thirties; I was still trying to give shape to my identity. I knew my dreams, but didn't really know what to do with myself and what path to follow in order to get there. In the community, I met people whose situation was similar to mine, except they genuinely believed this place was going to save them. And I am severely allergic to this way of thinking, as I don't believe in blind idealism. Back then, I saw Auroville as a settlement established by Americans and the French, convinced that communism was the best thing to happen to us because they forgot to ask Poles about the reality of it. I was cynical and mocking about Auroville.
You wrote that you wondered whether Auroville was a cult, and yet several years later, you went back there and wrote a book about a utopia. How did you come up with that idea?
The idea to write a book around this topic had been there for a long time; I even set up a whole separate project about it. But then I started working on a reportage in Japan – Ganbare! – and it consumed all my attention. I decided that my 'utopias' could wait and I shelved them for later. Then, just as Ganbare! was published, I got back on track with that topic. At first I thought I would write about various places that try to bring utopian ideas to life and are currently on different levels of realization. I was interested in the energy found at various stages of making a dream reality, how this energy changes over time, and how dreams and reality start to influence one another. At some point, I had a several-pages long list, including intentional communities and ideas for whole new nations (such as Liberland). I thought I would visit several places and then see what I might write. I wanted to visit South Korea, where a city of the future was created based on technology to facilitate every aspect of life. To me, Songdo is at the very beginning of its journey towards fulfilling this utopian dream. I wanted to visit Christiania which, as it seemed to me, was near the end of this road. I perceived Christiania as a ripe dream, if not overripe. I don't know how much of it was true, since I never ended up visiting. Auroville was supposed to be the place to illustrate a dream in the process of being realized. I started with it, and once I took a good look at it from up close, I decided it deserved its own book. I think I made the right decision.
Why do you think that?
Auroville is one grand experiment. People came to the desert with their children and started establishing a new city, this new world from which a new kind of human was supposed to emerge. Auroville turned 50 in 2018, and I was curious about its children and who they grew up to be. What worked out, and what didn't. I no longer needed other stages of utopias to describe what I found interesting.
Generating a new human species does sound a bit frightening and cult-like.
I had the same impression, which was why I ran away from Auroville the first time I was there. Once I returned, I knew I would have to face my reluctance. Indeed, some people there spoke in a very cult-like way. One of my interviewees said Auroville is inhabited by 12 clans that, in his opinion, provide a very natural way of distributing social roles within a community. There was a clan of priests, a clan of businesspeople, a clan of farmers. Still, Auroville is definitely not a cult. There is no initiation ceremony required for someone to stay there, even if they live there for a year, as I did. The trial period one has to undergo is a time you need to understand what the point is of working for this community. I recently spoke to an Aurovillian about how they're handling the COVID pandemic. I asked whether the city helps the businesses (which are, in fact, owned by the city, since due to a governmental solution, Auroville is a foundation with an array of non-governmental organizations underneath. Were the taxes lowered, for example? My goodness, did she take an offence! "Kasia, what are you talking about? It's Auroville that needs me now, not the other way round. Now more than ever." I realized that, once again, I had missed the fundamental truth about Auroville: it's the citizens who make the city, and they are not 'made' by it.
Auroville is not meant to provide a comfortable life; all it gives to its people is the means of basic survival, and everyone must take care of the rest. It is the citizens' responsibility to make sure that Auroville – the idea in which they believe – survives. Therefore, the question Aurovillians ask themselves is "How can I support my community?" rather than "What can I get out of my community now?" It's the complete opposite of the situation we are experiencing here, but I would not call it a cult. Those people have an idea that they believe in, and they understand it's not possible to achieve it from the position of making demands. They have to roll up their sleeves and work for it. As for a new species of human, it all depends on how literally we read into this concept. Siri Aurobindo, an Indian philosopher from the University of Cambridge, whose thought served as the blueprint for Auroville, insisted that humans are not the final stage of evolution and that something else will appear after us. However, Aurobindo considered it from the perspective of consciousness rather than biology, as he believed we can still become better versions of ourselves. That's how I see it. But in the 1970s, some people believed their children's consciousness was already more advanced than everyone else's. I'm pretty sure they were soon cured of that conviction. Today, nobody means a new species of human literally.
What image of Auroville did you have in your mind when you returned to this city to write a book about it?
I tried to keep my mind open, although I was going there with my own thesis. While my work on the book about Japan had taught me that such preconceived notions tend to go down quickly, I still need them for inspiration and ideas; they draw me into a new subject. The starting point was the dreams that shape reality. In Auroville, it's perceptible. Before the humans arrived, there was nothing there, just emptiness. Dreams and reality were my first lead. Then, I wanted to see what they managed to achieve within those 50 years and what they did not; whether our society could learn from it, too.
In your book's title, you refer to Auroville as The City Made of Dreams. Why did you choose dreams as the starting concept?
I wanted to write about a place in which one can see how dreams shape reality, and how reality shapes dreams, as well as see the moment in which the dream is no longer just that. It's the moment when the reality has changed your goal so much, it's no longer what it was when you were at the beginning of your journey. What to do then? Will you decide that you have changed along with your dream and want to keep going at it, despite it being different? Do you stick to it or leave it all and change your life again?
How much time did you spend in Auroville?
One year, not including my first time there in 2008, but it was not a year all in one go – I split it into several visits. Initially, I thought I'd make it three stays – two months long each time – but after my first visit, I already knew that was way too little time. The first visit allowed me to get into the community, but it was still just scratching the surface. I was only beginning to realize who was who and which issues I found interesting, but I didn't even manage to conduct one interview. Not because the people of Auroville are wary of strangers or don't want to talk to outsiders. They are simply very busy. Sometimes, they told me they could meet me in three months from now, which was why I needed more time. Aurovillians don't have whole days at their disposal to spend talking to reporters and journalists, of whom many visit. The city saw a surge of journalists in 2018 when it was celebrating 50 years of existence. I was in a more comfortable situation, as I had arrived in Auroville a year before. It was a good time to start working on my project. Over the course of my first two months there, I realized the subject could fill the entire book. The next two months gave me my first interactions with the main characters of the story. That was when I decided to go back there for eight more months – also because I just wanted to experience normal life in Auroville. Did you know that in total, I spent four years working on this subject?
That's a long time. You wrote that at some point, you thought about staying in Auroville for good.
If you live somewhere for a year and, due to the nature of your job, you try to get to know it in-depth, understand it, learn as much as possible about it, at some point, you get really drawn in. It's natural to ask yourself whether you would like to stay there.
You had to dig deep into the memories of Aurovillians, but in your book, you point out that those who reach the community today are not focused on the city's past. Where did you find documents on the history part of your book if they don't teach the history of Auroville in their schools?
I did it bit by bit, in snippets. Of course, I looked for information in books about the first years of Auroville – in the Pioneer's biographies and in my interviews with them. However, some things reached me as single sentences, dropped during my trips around Auroville, for example. This way, I learned about the conflict that divided the community in the 1970s, and I started researching it. If you keep asking, then sooner or later you will get some answers. But at first I didn't even know myself what I was looking for. I grasped at various threads, arranged meetings and interviews, not knowing whether they'd take me anywhere at all. I often felt like I was stumbling in the dark. On the one hand, I knew what interested me and what questions to ask. On the other hand, I had no idea where it was going to lead me and what story I was going to tell. As if I was wandering around a labyrinth with many exits, each of them leading towards a completely different landscape. This experience was radically different from what I discovered when working on Ganbare!. In that book, it was obvious that I was writing about ways of handling trauma and loss. That was the core of my conversations and the people I chose to feature in that book. And here, everyone – not only an Aurovillian but someone just passing through Auroville as well – could be a potential character. The breakthrough came when I met Auroson, the first child of Auroville. He was the first aurochild and the first new human.
When exactly did you meet?
I found out about him during my second visit to Auroville. We made contact, but we did not meet at that time. In November 2017, when I came over for eight months, we were already in touch on a regular basis. We talked for many hours, and we became friends.
Who were your sources?
I divided them into two groups: those who could tell me their personal stories and those who could explain how Auroville handles the development of society. That is – how Aurovillians work on changing the system, how they look for solutions and which solutions have already been put to the test. When talking to the former, I wanted to know what made them come to Auroville. I also looked for people from both sides of the conflict that divided the community. I was very fortunate, since many of the Pioneers came back to celebrate the city's 50th anniversary. Most of those interviews did not appear in the book since they were very similar and repetitive: arrival at the city, meeting the Mother, transformation, then life in the desert. As for the latter group, I wanted to know what Auroville does about various areas of life that it wants to improve, such as education, management, economy, architecture, culture, health and nutrition. I tried to meet with the people responsible for urban planning, with farmers, teachers, mediators, and with people who were brought up in Auroville since early childhood, at various stages of its existence. In order to draw in the children, I organized a creative writing class in one of the schools, but it was not very successful. Only one girl came back.
Thank you. Discouraging people from writing is a very useful thing to do.
In your book, you admitted that you didn't talk to everyone you wanted to interview. You didn't find the courage to chat to Jurgen, even though you had spent several months waiting for him in a café. It's a very honest admission for a reporter. Did you get cold feet?
I turned out to be a reporter who's afraid of people. No, I did not speak to him. At that moment, it was more than I could have dealt with. It's not like I was waiting there just for him. The 'café', or rather a tea-serving booth, was a place I had already frequented earlier, before someone said: "Oh, you must talk to Jurgen." I started coming more often, Jurgen was never there, and when he finally showed up, I was taken by surprise, so instead of coming up to him and introducing myself, I just kept on drinking my tea. I was not in the mood for talking, and I found him a little intimidating, too. I could have always spoken with him later, after all. This happened several times. In the end, I found it embarrassing to start a conversation at that point. What would I even say? "You know what, Jurgen, I've been sitting here smiling at you, and it's lovely to drink tea in silence together, but I'm actually a reporter and I've heard of you before. Could we talk about your life now?" I realized that I don't have to come up to him. That not everything in my life has to revolve around doing research for my book. Sometimes, it's good to let it go. I felt similar about a certain woman. I waited three months to talk to her, and then it turned out I couldn't make conversation with her – she just frightened me.
Did you learn any other hard lessons while writing about Auroville?
It was difficult to decide whom I should describe and how to do it. I resolved not to write about my friends (whose stories were fascinating, and I would have loved to tell them, but I could not do it precisely because of our friendship). The relationship you establish with someone as a book interviewee is different than a relationship with a friend. This could also lead to a grudge; perhaps some of the things they shared were said in confidence granted by our friendship, and only some were meant for publication? It was also important for them to know whether I viewed them as friends or just book material. Auroson was the only exception to this rule, but our relationship was clear from the very beginning. Still, we became very close and sometimes I was not quite sure whether I was talking to him as a reporter or as a friend.
In Auroville, I came across one more difficulty that I didn't have to deal with in Japan: here, many people simply refused to meet with me. In Japan, it was also easier for me to conduct the interviews, as they were all focused on just one topic. I arrived at a place wrecked by a tsunami, a place recovering from a trauma. Both I and the main characters of my book were clear on what we were going to discuss. In Auroville, it was much more difficult. I had to serve as a guide to a conversation whose topic was incredibly broad. I sought out turning points in a person's life, something that made them chase their dreams, but I also looked for something that defined them, showed who they were, where they started and where they arrived. So I could have said: "Tell me all about your life, since your birth until now, and only then will I start asking you more detailed questions." Of course, this was usually impossible. Therefore, the course of the interviews usually depended on how aware my interviewees were of the turning points of their lives.
In Japan, it was obvious that our conversations were all built around the events of 11th March 2011 and everything that came after. People exposed their emotions in front of me, but they did not have to look for some meta-level inside themselves that would allow them to view their lives from an observer's perspective. My role is to facilitate entering that level with my questions. In Japan, I knew what questions to ask. In Auroville, I had no idea.
On top of that, the question about the meaning of our existence was always hanging right there in front of us, and that's the most difficult question to handle, as it provokes banalities. Especially when writing a reportage on spirituality. There was one more problem at hand – I realized I find it easier to write about strong, painful emotions. They're so overwhelming that they turn out to be enough to draw readers into the story. In Auroville, there is no drama. All we get is mundane day-to-day life. I had to problematize it and find a way of describing it so that it remained interesting and absorbing, despite its lack of emotional highs and lows.
Do you think Auroville's existence makes sense today?
Yes and no. I think it depends on how we approach this city. After all, we don't need Auroville to change the world or to work on becoming better versions of ourselves. It's not like the world won't survive without it. Auroville has no importance to the world. Seeing how India – and the world in general – has moved forwards, we must keep in mind that Auroville has become somewhat stagnant, especially when it comes to technology. Still, just because I lived there doesn't mean I understand everything that happens there. I keep asking questions. I think that Auroville is not pointless, because there are people still coming there today, wanting to try the thing it has to offer. This way, they can take something out of it, other than various ecological solutions – for example, they can discover that they don't need Auroville to change. But this city provides an impulse, teaching them to ask the right questions. In my opinion, Auroville shows that change, while being slow and difficult, is actually possible. It requires enormous open-mindedness, endurance and conviction. The fact that changes happen so slowly is less comforting; today, we need changes to take place much more swiftly. But perhaps it would happen faster if more people worked to make them come true?
So how is the 1968 utopia different from the 2018 utopia?
The premise remains the same, but it's the concept that was successful, not the city itself. The final vision is so vague that everything can work out – there is no ultimate goal, no ideal you strive to achieve. All we get is a clue: creating a place of human unity. Of course, it was said in advance that the city would reach its peak once it housed 50,000 people. Next, we would have to set up more communities until they covered the entire globe. But this recipe provided no measures. You have to try and figure it out yourself to make it happen. Auroville is not an escape from reality, because here, everyone takes responsibility for their actions. Everything is clear from the very beginning. Even the omnipresent Mother had no rigid guidelines to follow.
What was your relationship with Mother?
I don't want to say who Mother was. But it is thanks to her that Auroville exists at all today. She convinced UNESCO and 124 countries to support its conception. She was a charismatic woman, a woman who could change people's lives with just one look. She kept on changing their lives even after she passed away – many Aurovillians insist they can still feel Mother looking after them. I didn't manage to establish a relationship with Mother. It's not like I didn't try to. Today I think I respect her, although I did not like her at first. I had my doubts about her, precisely because I saw her as a cult guru. Even though she is no longer alive, everyone – even those who are not very religious – keep referring to her words. I found Mother unsettling. Perhaps it was because I had never met someone so charismatic, even though I know such people do exist. She could evoke genuinely extreme emotions in people. When telling me about their meetings with Mother, Aurovillians had tears in their eyes. And yet, I didn't trust her, as I didn't trust the whole narrative that grew around her. On top of it, she stared at me from the photographs almost everywhere I went. As if she actually was the Mother of the People. I felt invigilated. I saw no love in her gaze.
Sometimes, people who have met John Paul II say they experienced similar emotions.
Yes, I also thought of this comparison when I was thinking about other charismatic people I might know. I think that meetings with John Paul II evoked similar emotions: elation, understanding, forgiveness, acceptance, concern, tenderness, love. People who describe their experience of meeting a person they considered charismatic often report it in a very similar way. I did not feel comfortable around Mother, but I knew I could not write my book without her.
The structure of your book is very purposeful. From the very beginning, we don't know what to expect and how the story will unfold. Was that your conscious writing choice when you started to put it all together?
No, it emerged during the writing process. I knew I wanted to write the story of a city through the stories of its people and that each of these stories had to push the city's story forward. But I had no idea what the final form would be. It was the same with Ganbare! – I had two drafts ready before I understood how to make a book out of them. In this case, there were even more drafts to work on.
Your book ends with a brutal statement about what life is.
Perhaps I needed Auroville to understand that.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Scientists have found evidence of hot springs near sites where ancient hominids settled, long before the control of fire.
The region has preserved many fossils and stone tools, indicating that early humans settled and hunted there.
Now a team led by researchers at MIT and the University of Alcalá in Spain has discovered evidence that hot springs may have existed in Olduvai Gorge around that time, near early human archaeological sites. The proximity of these hydrothermal features raises the possibility that early humans could have used hot springs as a cooking resource, for instance to boil fresh kills, long before humans are thought to have used fire as a controlled source for cooking.
"As far as we can tell, this is the first time researchers have put forth concrete evidence for the possibility that people were using hydrothermal environments as a resource, where animals would've been gathering, and where the potential to cook was available," says Roger Summons, the Schlumberger Professor of Geobiology in MIT's Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (EAPS).
Summons and his colleagues have published their findings today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study's lead author is Ainara Sistiaga, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow based at MIT and the University of Copenhagen. The team includes Fatima Husain, a graduate student in EAPS, along with archaeologists, geologists, and geochemists from the University of Alcalá and the University of Valladolid, in Spain; the University of Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania; and Pennsylvania State University.
An unexpected reconstruction
In 2016, Sistiaga joined an archaeological expedition to Olduvai Gorge, where researchers with the Olduvai Paleoanthropology and Paleoecology Project were collecting sediments from a 3-kilometer-long layer of exposed rock that was deposited around 1.7 million years ago. This geologic layer was striking because its sandy composition was markedly different from the dark clay layer just below, which was deposited 1.8 million years ago.
"Something was changing in the environment, so we wanted to understand what happened and how that impacted humans," says Sistiaga, who had originally planned to analyze the sediments to see how the landscape changed in response to climate and how these changes may have affected the way early humans lived in the region.
It's thought that around 1.7 million years ago, East Africa underwent a gradual aridification, moving from a wetter, tree-populated climate to dryer, grassier terrain. Sistiaga brought back sandy rocks collected from the Olduvai Gorge layer and began to analyze them in Summons' lab for signs of certain lipids that can contain residue of leaf waxes, offering clues to the kind of vegetation present at the time.
"You can reconstruct something about the plants that were there by the carbon numbers and the isotopes, and that's what our lab specializes in, and why Ainara was doing it in our lab," Summons says. "But then she discovered other classes of compounds that were totally unexpected."
An unambiguous sign
Within the sediments she brought back, Sistiaga came across lipids that looked completely different from the plant-derived lipids she knew. She took the data to Summons, who realized that they were a close match with lipids produced not by plants, but by specific groups of bacteria that he and his colleagues had reported on, in a completely different context, nearly 20 years ago.
The lipids that Sistiaga extracted from sediments deposited 1.7 million years ago in Tanzania were the same lipids that are produced by a modern bacteria that Summons and his colleagues previously studied in the United States, in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park.
One specific bacterium, Thermocrinis ruber, is a hyperthermophilic organism that will only thrive in very hot waters, such as those found in the outflow channels of boiling hot springs.
"They won't even grow unless the temperature is above 80 degrees Celsius [176 degrees Fahrenheit]," Summons says. "Some of the samples Ainara brought back from this sandy layer in Olduvai Gorge had these same assemblages of bacterial lipids that we think are unambiguously indicative of high-temperature water."
That is, it appears that heat-loving bacteria similar to those Summons had worked on more than 20 years ago in Yellowstone may also have lived in Olduvai Gorge 1.7 million years ago. By extension, the team proposes, high-temperature features such as hot springs and hydrothermal waters could also have been present.
"It's not a crazy idea that, with all this tectonic activity in the middle of the rift system, there could have been extrusion of hydrothermal fluids," notes Sistiaga, who says that Olduvai Gorge is a geologically active tectonic region that has upheaved volcanoes over millions of years — activity that could also have boiled up groundwater to form hot springs at the surface.
The region where the team collected the sediments is adjacent to sites of early human habitation featuring stone tools, along with animal bones. It is possible, then, that nearby hot springs may have enabled hominins to cook food such as meat and certain tough tubers and roots.
"The authors' comprehensive analyses paint a vivid picture of the ancient Olduvai Gorge ecosystem and landscape, including the first compelling evidence for ancient hydrothermal springs," says Richard Pancost, a professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Bristol, who was not involved in the study. "This introduces the fascinating possibility that such springs could have been used by early hominins to cook food."
"Why wouldn't you eat it?"
Exactly how early humans may have cooked with hot springs is still an open question. They could have butchered animals and dipped the meat in hot springs to make them more palatable. In a similar way, they could have boiled roots and tubers, much like cooking raw potatoes, to make them more easily digestible. Animals could have also met their demise while falling into the hydrothermal waters, where early humans could have fished them out as a precooked meal.
"If there was a wildebeest that fell into the water and was cooked, why wouldn't you eat it?" Sistiaga poses.
While there is currently no sure-fire way to establish whether early humans indeed used hot springs to cook, the team plans to look for similar lipids, and signs of hydrothermal reservoirs, in other layers and locations throughout Olduvai Gorge, as well as near other sites in the world where human settlements have been found.
"We can prove in other sites that maybe hot springs were present, but we would still lack evidence of how humans interacted with them. That's a question of behavior, and understanding the behavior of extinct species almost 2 million years ago is very difficult, Sistiaga says. "I hope we can find other evidence that supports at least the presence of this resource in other important sites for human evolution."
This research was supported, in part, by the European Commission (MSCA-GF), the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and the Government of Spain.
Psychedelics are going mainstream. Here's your reading list.
- Hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into psychedelics companies right now.
- With loosening restrictions on clinical research, new therapeutic modalities are being investigated for anxiety, depression, and more.
- The psychedelic literature is rich with anecdotal accounts and clinical studies.
UC Berkeley recently announced the launch of its center for psychedelic research and education, thanks to an anonymous $1.25 million donation. This follows Imperial College London's 2019 founding of The Centre for Psychedelic Research and Johns Hopkins's Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research. The U.S. company, MindMed, which is working on clinical studies on ibogaine's efficacy in treating addiction, is planning an IPO. A host of similar Canadian companies have already entered that country's stock market.
What a long, strange trip it's been.
As psychedelics are catapulted into the mainstream, the following eight books cover a range of related topics, including clinical research and anecdotal tales. Whether you're an advocate, a newbie, or just curious, these books provide a great education on the therapeutic and spiritual potential of the psychedelic ritual.
Huxley on Psychedelics
Am I Dreaming? The New Science of Consciousness and How Altered States Reboot the Brain — James Kingsland
Science journalist James Kingland takes a broad view of altered states of consciousness, including lucid dreaming, virtual reality, hypnotic trances, and microdosing (and larger doses) with psychedelics. His journeys with ayahuasca, LSD, and psilocybin recount intense personal experiences and are worthwhile for anyone interested in the science behind these substances. In the end, Kingsland reminds us the real work of any trip is done in sobriety.
"In some ways the trip is the easy bit. The hard work starts when you try to integrate the lessons you have learned into ordinary life."
Drugged: The Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs — Richard J Miller
Northwestern pharmacology professor Richard J Miller was exposed to the power of psychedelics while attending Woodstock. This "religious experience" inspired his career in pharmacology. He wanted to discover how substances can alter neurochemistry this profoundly. In "Drugged," Miller investigates a range of mind-changing substances, including coffee, opium, cannabis, and antidepressants. The chapters devoted to psychedelics provide a great overview of their clinical and spiritual applications.
"The powerful effects of natural products such as Amanita muscaria or ergot suggest that they contain important chemical substances that, if isolated and understood from the structural point of view, might provide us with new insights into disease mechanisms or potential therapeutic opportunities for treating diseases."
Hallucinogens: A Reader — Edited by Charles Grob
UCLA Medical Center professor of Psychiatry & Biobehavioral Sciences, Charles Grob, was the first researcher approved to clinically study MDMA and ayahuasca in the '90s. His pioneering (and continued) work in these fields has pushed the field of psychedelic research forward. This 2002 collection features the writings of Ralph Metzner, Terence McKenna, Huston Smith, Rick Strassman, and an interview with Dr. Andrew Weil. The book closes with three exceptional essays by Grob on the psychology of ayahuasca, the politics of MDMA research, and psychiatric research with hallucinogens.
As Weil says of his experiences with psychedelics,
"It can give you a vision of possibility, but then it doesn't show you anything about maintaining that possibility. When the vision goes, the drug wears off, you are back where you were, you haven't learned anything but you have seen that something is possible. It is then up to you to figure out how to manifest the possibility.
Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers — Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hoffman, and Christian Ratsch
This 1998 encyclopedia of psychedelic plants and fungi is the bible of cosmonauts. Everything is covered: history, culture, pharmacology, therapeutic applications, regional distinctions, chemistry, maps, and tons of photos. This resource should be in any serious cosmonaut's library. While grounded in research and respectful of the cultures that practice plant medicine, the trio of experts also understand their broader context.
"The psychic changes and unusual states of consciousness induced by hallucinogens are so far removed from similarity with ordinary life that it is scarcely possible to describe them in a language of daily living. A person under the effects of a hallucinogen forsakes his familiar world and operates under other standards, in strange dimensions and in a different time."
American writer William Seward Burroughs (1914-1997), author of the cult novel "Naked Lunch."
Credit: Evening Standard/Getty Images
Psychedelic Medicine: The Healing Powers of LSD, MDMA, Psilocbyin, and Ayahuasca — Dr. Richard Louis Miller
Richard Louis Miller has been a clinical psychologist for over a half-century. He's also the host of a popular syndicated talk radio show, where he discusses health, mindfulness, and politics. This platform led him to explore psychedelics in a broad scientific and political context.
This book is a collection of interviews from his show, featuring David Nichols, Stanislav Grof, Charles Grob, Roland Griffiths, Amanda Feilding, and Dennis McKenna. They cover a range of issues, such as MDMA as a therapy for PTSD, the efficacy of the current psychiatric paradigm, and psilocybin in depression treatment. These invaluable conversations include this important insight from MAPS founder, Rick Doblin.
"The fundamental problem with our drug policy is that it ascribes good and bad qualities to drugs themselves—"this is a good drug, that's a bad drug"—when really it's the relationship that you have with the drug that determines the value of it and whether it's harmful or helpful."
The Doors of Perception — Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley's landmark 1954 book on mescaline remains fundamental to psychedelics advocates. Huxley wanted to experience mystic visions, a feat mescaline offered. Yet he never fell prey to the whims of useless metaphysics. This stunning essay details a political and spiritual thinker applying pragmatic as well as transcendental understandings of the psychedelic vision.
"The other word to which mescalin admitted me was not the world of visions; it existed out there, in what I could see with my eyes open. The great change was in the realm of objective fact. What had happened to my subjective universe was relatively unimportant."
When you get the message, hang up the phone. That summates the British philosopher's take on psychedelics. While his lane was more meditation and philosophy than drugs—though he was known for enjoying a drink—Watts has plenty to offer on altered states. Watts applies a critical eye to the slacker looking to get off on drugs, yet also recognizes the essential need for connection to nature in an ever-speedy society—this book was published in 1962. That's the thing about reading Watts: it always catches up to you, wherever you happen to be, trademark humor and all.
"It is not really healthy for monks to practice fasting, and it was hardly hygienic for Jesus to get himself crucified, but these are risks taken in the course of spiritual adventures."
The Yage Letters Redux — William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg
This correspondence between two of the Beat generation's top writers is a gem. Burroughs spent months traveling around South America looking for the legendary ayahuasca (yage), long before private planes shuffled Silicon Valley execs to glamping retreats. That meant purchasing bootleg ayahuasca and having colorful run-ins with locals. Many remember Burroughs as a junkie—he had his moments—but the writer also meticulously documented the pharmacology of his drugs. Kerouac owned the road, but Burroughs claimed the sky.
"Yage is not like anything else. This is not the electric euphoria of coke which activates the channels of pure pleasure in the brain, the sexless, timeless, negative pleasure of opium. It is closer to hashish than to any other drug. There are also similarities between Peyote and yage. But while hashish intensifies all sensual impressions, yage distorts or shuts down ordinary sensations, transporting you to another level of experience."
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Most of Stonehenge's megaliths, called sarens, came from West Woods, Wiltshire.
- Researchers have known Stonehenge's smaller bluestones came from Preseli Hills, Wales, but the source of its sarsens has remained a mystery.
- Using chemical analysis, scientists found a matching source at West Woods, approximately 16 miles north of the World Heritage Site.
- But mysteries remain, such as why that site was chosen.
Many mysteries surround Stonehenge. Who built it and what purpose did it serve? Why that arrangement of megaliths and lentels? How did Neolithic people move and erect such massive stones using 5,000-year-old technology? Because Stonehenge's builders left us no written record, historians, archaeologists, enthusiasts, conspiracy theorists, and outright cranks have tried for centuries to translate their prehistoric silence into answers.
As scientific tools and techniques have advanced, we've learned to better discern the forensic clues left behind in the megaliths, inhumed bodies, and landscape of the Salisbury Plain. Today, scientists have traced Stonehenge's "bluestones"—smaller dolerite stones found in the monument's interior—to quarries in Preseli Hills, Wales. They've also established that the bluestones likely served as grave markers for the people buried there, also from Wales.
Thanks to our scientific tools, and a reclaimed piece of history, another Stonehenge mystery has been solved. Scientists have pinpointed the source area for most of the monument's extant sarsens. And no, aliens did not carry these megaliths with tractor beams to create an interstellar landing pad. Sorry, cranks. Stonehenge's origin is far more terrestrial, found in a little spot near Marlborough Downs.
Discovering Stonehenge's signature
In 1958, engineers undertook the task of re-erecting a Stonehenge trilithon that fell in 1797. Three cores drilled into a sarsen disappeared soon after.
"Sarsen" is the common term for the giant sandstone—more specifically, duricrust silcrete—megaliths that enwreathe Stonehenge. Fifty-two of an estimated 80 sarsens remain today. They form both the interior horseshoe and the uprights and lintels of the outer circle, as well as peripheral stones like the Heel and Slaughter Stones. The largest sarsens stand at about 30 feet tall and weigh around 25 tons.
The immense size of these boulders sits at the center of one of Stonehenge's most enticing enigmas. How did people, using only Neolithic technology, manage to move and prop up such massive stones? A major piece to that puzzle has been their source, as the answer would inform scientists on the opportunities and challenges facing the builders as they moved the sarsens.
To find that piece, David Nash, the study's lead author and a professor at Brighton University, and his team analyzed the sarsens using a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. This non-intrusive analysis allowed them to generate initial chemical characterizations for the stones' 34 chemical elements.
"Until recently we did not know it was possible to provenance a stone like sarsen," Nash said in a release. "It has been really exciting to use 21st century science to understand the Neolithic past and answer a question that archaeologists have been debating for centuries."
To further hone in on the source area, the team needed to generate high-resolution chemical signatures by analyzing a sample. Of course, the idea of tearing a sample out of this World Heritage Site would be near sacrilege. Luckily, a previously lost piece of history had recently been returned to the British people.
In 1958, a restoration program re-erected a Stonehenge trilithon that fell in 1797. After lifting the sarsens, engineers discovered cracks in one of the uprights (Stone 58). They drilled out three cores from the stone and inserted metal ties to reinforce its integrity. The holes were filled with sarsen plugs to hide the intrusion. However, the three cores disappeared.
Flash forward to 2018. Robert Phillips, an 89-year-old U.S. citizen and on-site worker during the restoration, returned one of the three cores. Nash and his team were granted permission to sample a piece from "Phillips' core." They used a plasma mass spectrometer to create a chemical signature for the monument, one they could compare to potential source sites across southern Britain.
They found a match in West Woods, Wiltshire. Fifty of Stonehenge's 52 sarsens share a chemical signature with the stones in this area, strongly suggesting they were sourced there. The area also sports a high concentration of evidence for early Neolithic activity, adding to its plausibility.
"To be able to pinpoint the area that Stonehenge's builders used to source their materials around 2,500 BC is a real thrill," Susan Greaney, senior properties historian at English Heritage, told the BBC. "While we had our suspicions that Stonehenge's sarsens came from the Marlborough Downs, we didn't know for sure, and with areas of sarsens across Wiltshire, the stones could have come from anywhere."
She added the evidence showed "how carefully considered and deliberate the building of this phase of Stonehenge was."
The study was published in Science Advances.
For every answer, another question
A view of Stonehenge during the Summer Solstice.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Thanks to Nash and his team, scientists now know the source of Stonehenge's sarsens. This clue can help them solve other Stonehenge mysteries. That most of the stones were sourced from one location, the study notes, suggests that they were erected at about the same time. It also reveals the routes the Neolithic builders had to traverse with their heavy loads.
But questions remain. Why did the builders choose West Woods when the Salisbury Plain is dense with sarsen? Why were two megaliths (Stones 26 and 160) sourced elsewhere? And were the missing stones gathered from West Woods or elsewhere?
These questions only touch on the sarsens. The question that intrigues so many of the monument's visitors remains hotly debated: Who built Stonehenge and why? Was it a burial site for the Stone age elite? A monument marking British unification? A Druid Mecca? We don't know, but as scientific tools advance, we may be able to break the prehistoric silence that has laid over Stonehenge for so long.