Mushrooms and Humanity

Mushrooms and humans have a special relationship dating back thousands of years—and maybe even since long before humans were the modern humans we know today!

Readers of our completely free report Amateur Microscopy: Mushrooms, Psilocybin, and YOU have already enjoyed a taste of what we’re going to discuss here today. If you don’t have your own digital copy yet, make sure to download it now.

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Those of you who already read the report are no doubt yearning to learn more about the topics we talked about there. So today, we’ll be taking a much deeper dive into the relationship between mushrooms and humans. Settle in, because believe it or not, it’s been a pretty wild ride throughout the ages.

There’s no better place to start than the beginning, right? As it happens, it just might be that the true beginning of the relationship between humans and mushrooms started very, very long ago. Let’s continue to talk about the famous Stoned Ape Theory as proposed by the late, great ethnobiologist Terence McKenna.

In The Beginning… Maybe! Who Was Terence McKenna, and What is the Stoned Ape Theory?

Terence McKenna
Terence McKenna

Terence McKenna (1946 – 2000) was a well renowned ethnobotanist and author. Born in Colorado, McKenna would go on to join the likes of Timothy Leary as an outspoken proponent of psychedelics. He is perhaps best known for his “Stoned ape” theory, which—if true—would mean that even the early ancestors of modern humans had interactions with the Psilocybe cubensis mushroom.

While criticisms of the theory have been presented over the years, it offers a fascinating possibility: have we modern humans, Homo sapiens, shared a relationship with fungi for quite literally our entire existence?

The premise of McKenna’s theory goes something like this: our evolutionary predecessors, Homo erectus, were forced to migrate as a result of a shifting climate in Africa. As a result of those travels, new food sources had to be utilized, one of which might have been the psilocybe cubensis mushroom, otherwise known as “magic” mushrooms.

Stoned Ape Theory and the Evolution of Man

Once Homo erectus began regularly consuming magic mushrooms, they experienced what could only be described as a mental expansion—an expansion of imagination, specifically. This shift in consciousness could have been responsible for the ultimate evolutionary shift to the particular brand of humanity we are now, Homo sapiens.

When consumed, psilocybin mushrooms can cause feelings of euphoria, which may have lead to increased sexual activity. As you likely already know, magic mushrooms can also cause visual and auditory hallucinations, increased emotional awareness, unique patterns of thought, and, according to some, the sense of a spiritual awakening.

It all sounds very romantic, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s just a bit wacky. But what makes this theory so fascinating is that some experts agree that it’s actually quite plausible in many ways.

From an evolutionary point of view, that’s an extraordinary expansion. And there is no explanation for this sudden increase in the human brain.

Paul Stamets, 2017

For example, the well known mycologist Paul Stamets (who is in large part responsible for rekindling interest in the theory during his appearances on pro-psychedelic Joe Rogan’s podcast), points out the fact that approximately 200,000 years ago, the evolution of the human brain underwent a sudden and bizarre doubling. As you might imagine, this isn’t common to find in history—neurological evolution on that scale tends to take much longer.

The really interesting thing about this evolutionary factoid is that it’s a mystery: mainstream scientists have no clue how or why this shift in human brain matter happened. About this, Stamets said at a conference in 2017, “from an evolutionary point of view, that’s an extraordinary expansion. And there is no explanation for this sudden increase in the human brain.”

Could it have been psilocybin mushrooms? If so, what implications does that have for humanity?

At the very least it would confirm that our relationship with mushrooms, psilocybin, and consciousness-expanding substances has been going on for an extremely long time. For the amateur microscopist, this undoubtedly makes the study of psilocybin mushroom spores even more interesting.

Let’s move forward in time a bit now to a more “modern” time: over 10,000 years ago.

During Ancient Times, Humans Were Using Psilocybin Mushrooms All Over the World

Some of the earliest confirmed (or at least strongly suspected) cases of psilocybin mushroom use come from around 11,000 years ago in Northern Africa. The aboriginal tribes there are thought to have created stone murals which depict the use of a local variety of Psilocybe cubensis

Later on, in Spain, it’s thought that Psilocybe hispanica is depicted in similar stone paintings, indicating that they may have been used in religious rituals. Similar artistic works have been found in Algeria, North America, Mexico, Guatemala, and Southern America across the ages. Needless to say, the influence of psychedelic mushrooms has had a strong impact on humanity for thousands of years.

It’s important to understand that while we commonly think of psilocybin mushrooms as “psychedelics” or “hallucinogens,” it’s more accurate to describe them as an entheogen. An entheogen is a psychoactive substance which is specifically used in religious or spiritual practices because of the changes in consciousness it can cause. For much of human history,  Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms were used for that purpose, and probably less so for recreation.

Psilocybin Mushrooms used in Native American Ceremonies depicted in art

For example, indigenous Native American peoples, most notably the Aztecs and the Mayas, commonly used psilocybin mushrooms and other entheogens like peyote and variations of morning glory plants in their religious rituals. These rituals were often large gatherings or festivals enjoyed by the upper class of the society.

Historians believe that magic mushrooms were used in the context of religious rituals where the goal was to communicate with various deities. In fact, the Aztecs referred to psilocybin mushrooms as teonanácatl, which roughly translates to “flesh of the gods” or “god mushroom.” 

It wasn’t until the Spanish arrived in Central America and began conquering the local people that these rituals became less common. They were viewed as heresy against the Catholic church and fell out of common public practice. One cannot help but draw a comparison to the widespread banning of psilocybin in the modern western world.

Speaking of which, just how did the west first come to know magic mushrooms? In the next section, we’ll find out—and then we’ll discuss how and why psilocybin mushrooms are illegal in the United States and many other countries (and why psilocybin mushroom spores are not).

When Did The Modern Western World First Become Exposed to Psilocybin Mushrooms?

[The visions] emerged from the center of the field of vision, opening up as they came, now rushing, now slowly, at the pace that our will chose. They were in vivid color, always harmonious. They began with art motifs, angular such as might decorate carpets or textiles or wallpaper or the drawing board of an architect.

R. Gordon Wasson

It wasn’t until the mid 1950s that the mainstream of the western world and specifically the United States became aware of psilocybin mushrooms. It’s possible some especially well traveled and adventurous Americans had experienced them prior to this time, but it was rare—and rarely discussed.

As we discussed in , the primary catalyst for this western awakening—as one might consider it—was when a Wall Street banker named R. Gordon Wasson, along with his wife Valentina and close friend and photographer Allan Richardson, visited a remote village in the mountains of Mexico where they participated in a religious ritual with the locals that involved psilocybin mushrooms.

Wasson wrote about it at length in what would become a popular article for Life Magazine. It’s a fascinating, colorful article, and it’s really no wonder that it excited the burgeoning class of western freethinkers. Evocative passages such as this abound:

Native American, Mayan, Psychedelic Artwork

“[The visions] emerged from the center of the field of vision, opening up as they came, now rushing, now slowly, at the pace that our will chose. They were in vivid color, always harmonious. They began with art motifs, angular such as might decorate carpets or textiles or wallpaper or the drawing board of an architect.”

You can read the article in its entirety here. It’s a wonderful piece of Americana and psychedelic history—but unfortunately, the days of legal psychonautical exploration were to be short lived in the United States.

The next spike of interest in psilocybin mushrooms wasn’t until the 1960s, when the well-known psychologist Timothy Leary would himself travel to Central America to have an experience similar to Wasson’s—in fact, the motivation for his travels was the very same Life article that Wasson had written.

Timothy Leary
Timothy Leary

Already a proponent of psychotropic substances such as LSD, Leary was intrigued by his experience with psilocybin. As a professor at the Harvard Center for Research in Personality, Leary and his associates (including the prolific philosopher Aldous Huxley of Brave New World fame) would go on to start the Harvard Psilocybin Project, a series of experiments which ran from 1960 until March 1962.

These experiments have received some notoriety in popular knowledge, such as the Concord Prison Experiment, in which the goal was to determine whether the administration of psilocybin during group therapy sessions would reduce recidivism rates (meaning the number of convicts who would return to prison within six months).

The results of the Concord Prison Experiment were quite conclusively in favor of the effectiveness of psilocybin. Prior records at the prison indicated that on average 64% of the subjects were expected to return to prison within six months. However, after the experiment, only 25% of the subjects returned. The convicts were issued personality tests which showed measurable benefits before and after psilocybin was administered.

The Harvard Psilocybin Project came to an end after a drawn out battle between Leary and the other professors and the administrative staff at Harvard which ultimately resulted in the dismissal of Leary and his associate Richard Alpert (who went on to become the spiritual teacher known as Ram Dass and was in large part responsible for the popularization of eastern spirituality and yoga in the United States).

Just a few short years later, psilocybin was made illegal in the United States and many other countries—but why?

Why Did the United States and Many Other Countries Make Magic Mushrooms Illegal?

After the Harvard Psilocybin Project was cut short, the first federal regulations prohibiting the possession, manufacture, or sale of psilocybin were as part of the Drug Abuse Control Amendments of 1965, which were passed as a result of a bill sponsored by then-Senator Thomas Dodd. However, the law had a number of exemptions, such as allowing personal use. Psilocybin wasn’t made strictly illegal until late 1968 when a federal law was enacted.

According to lawmakers, the decision was made because psilocybin was considered to have a high likelihood of abuse, a lack of safety, and no medical uses. It’s worth noting that these points are being quickly disproved by modern research. Read our page on The Benefits of Psilocybin for more information.

Psilocybin Mushrooms are Illegal

Less than three years later in 1971, the United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances began requiring members to prohibit psilocybin as well. This explains why psilocybin is banned in so many countries other than just the United States.

Is there hope for reform? Possibly. Read our page Are Magic Mushroom Spores Legal in My State for more information on new breakthroughs in modern decriminalization of psilocybin and state-specific regulatory information concerning psilocybin mushrooms and, more specifically, psilocybin mushroom spores.

Psilocybin Mushrooms Are Illegal, But Psilocybin Mushroom Spores Are Not

It’s very important to note that while psilocybin, psilocin, and Psilocybe cubensis mushrooms are illegal in the United States, their spores are not. Cultivating psilocybin mushroom spores would be illegal and is not recommended in any way. 

But why are the spores legal? It’s because psilocybin mushroom spores don’t contain psilocybin or psilocin, and thus aren’t considered controlled substances. This is why Quality Spores can provide them to amateur microscopists for research and taxonomy purposes.

To learn more about why spores are legal in most of the United States, read our page Why Are Magic Mushroom Spores Legal?

Humans and mushrooms have had a long, long relationship—here’s to another 10,000 years!

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