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Drugs in Early Americas: Toad Skins, Alcohol Enemas

The array of consciousness-altering substances that people in the early Americas used was wider than thought.

From hallucinogenic mushrooms and cacti to alcohol-infused enemas and psychoactive dried toad skins, the array of consciousness-altering substances that people in the early Americas used was wider than thought, a new report suggests.

People living in Mesoamerica before the arrival of Europeans used such psychotropic drugs primarily in medicine and religious rituals, said study author Francisco Javier Carod-Artal of Hospital Virgen de la Luz in Cuenca, Spain. (Mesoamerica is a region defined more by shared cultures than by geographical boundaries, but it can roughly be considered as the southernmost region of North America. The modern nations of Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua and Costa Rica are among the countries in the region.)

Moreover, some of these drugs are still used today for medicinal purposes in indigenous communities, Carod-Artal said.

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"In many rural and traditional communities with limited access to the modern health system, many healers are taking care of the health in the native communities," Carod-Artal told Live Science. "Seizures, migraine, depression, and other neurological and mental health disorders are treated in the context of ritual ceremonies with some of these drugs."

Here is a closer look at some of those mysterious substances.

Balché and ritual enemas The Maya - whose civilization reached its peak between 250 B.C. and A.D. 900 - consumed an intoxicating drink called "balché" during the ritual of divination, in which they tried to communicate with spirits, according to the report. The Mayamade the drink by mixing an infusion from the bark of a plant called Lonchocarpus longistylus together with honey produced by bees that fed on a type of a morning glory plant that contained ergine, which is thought to have psychedelic properties.

In the divination ritual, intoxicated Mayan people aimed to communicate with spirits in order to predict the future or make sense of events that were difficult for them to accept and understand, according to the report. Such events included illnesses, changes in fortune, bad weather, poor harvests and wars.

Drinking balché was also often accompanied by smoking tobacco and performing ritual enemas using substances that contained alcohol, sometimes mixed with other psychoactive substances. The enemas were applied using syringes made of gourd and clay, and they were performed to help people "attain more intense trance states more quickly," according to the report.

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Sacred mushrooms At least 54 hallucinogenic mushrooms in the genus Psilocybe were used by pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, and those mushroom species can still be found today in Mexico, according to the report. Psilocybin is the hallucinogenic compound in these mushrooms that produces mind-altering effects. [11 Odd Facts About 'Magic' Mushrooms]

Religious practices involving the use of "sacred mushrooms" took place in the Valley of Mexico and the rest of Central America, and researchers estimate that these rituals are at least 3,500 years old, according to the report.

"Those who eat them [the mushrooms] see visions and feel fluttering of the heart. The visions they see are sometimes frightening and sometimes humorous," according to the book "General History of the Things of New Spain," by Fray Bernardino de SahagĂşn, a 16th century ethnographer who studied Aztec beliefs and culture, Carod-Artal reported.

Psilocybin affects people's motor reflexes, behavior and perception of time, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). People can also suffer panic reactions and psychosis while using the drug, especially those who use large doses. Long-term use of psilocybin has been linked with psychiatric illness and impaired memory.

Hallucinogenic cactus Another source of intoxicating substances in Mesoamerica was peyote, which is a type of cactus that contains more than 60 hallucinogenic compounds, including the primary one, mescaline, Carod-Artal wrote in the report. Mescaline is found within nodules of peyote cacti, which can be chewed or made into an infusion that people can drink, according to the study.

"Ritual use of peyote in the Americas dates back more than 5,000 years, to prehistoric times," the report said. Traces of the drug have been found in Mexico and in the Shumla Cave in Texas, according to the study.

People who ingest peyote have reported "colorful visual hallucinations (kaleidoscopic visions), sensation of weightlessness, and altered perception of time and space," according to the study.

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Both peyote and psilocybin disrupt the interaction of neurons and the neurotransmitter serotonin, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Peyote can also cause increased body temperature and heart rate, uncoordinated movements, and profound sweating and flushing.

Toad-skin drugs One of the most unusual drugs in Mesoamerica was sourced from the toads in the Bufo genus. The salivary glands of the toad species in this genus produce toxic substances called bufotoxins, which also have psychoactive properties, according to Carod-Artal.

Reports by 16th-century historians say that the Maya added tobacco and the dried skins of a common toad in the Bufo genus to their alcoholic beverages to make the drinks more potent, Carod-Artalwrote. "The K'iche' group of the Maya still uses the skin of this amphibian as an ingredient in their balché," he wrote.

"Devil's herb"

Toloache is a type of plant also called "devil's herb," and has been used for centuries in Mesoamerica for treating wounds and combatting pain, Carod-Artal said. But it was also used in rites of passage, as a consciousness-altering drug during rituals, he said.

"It has been hypothesized that during ritual human sacrifices, some prisoners and those people that would be sacrificed were drunk with some consciousness-altering beverages, probably ones including toloache," he said.

The report was published online Dec. 2 in the journal NeurologĂ­a.

Originally published on Live Science.

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At least 54 hallucinogenic mushrooms in the genus Psilocybe were used by pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures.

The rains that have innundated the East Coast this week may have finally stopped, but they left parting gifts that are invading lawns everywhere: mushrooms. If your yard is anything like mine, an alarming and entirely new (to me, anyway) assortment of fungi have sprung up in the past week: mushrooms red, green and orange in the shape of frowny faces and smiley faces, some lumpen masses, some perfect half moons, some warty, some smooth. What's more, these are magic mushrooms. The following photos are almost all of the same species: Fly Amanita, (Amanita muscaria). Explore the portraits I took of these exotic looking, but quite common, mushrooms. And learn a little about some of the largest organisms on Earth. Did I mention they're magic?

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This fly amanita mushroom (Amanita muscaria) is poisonous

and

hallucinogenic. It's thought that the mushroom is one of the oldest hallucinogens known to humans. During the Middle Ages, the ancient Norse warriors called Berserkers ate foods that contained the mushroom, which made them fearless and brutal fighters, even if they were completely high. Several tribes in Siberia were found in the early 1700s using the mushroom as an intoxicant. In order to stretch the euphoric effects of the mushroom, and possibly bypass the less savory effects of the mushroom (i.e. vomiting), tribesmen would often drink the urine of men who had taken the drug, since the drug passes through the body unchanged. The mushroom can also be consumed dried, or combined with other liquids.

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According to "Golden Guide: Hallucinogenic plants," the history of fly amanita could go even further back, thousands of years, to ancient India, where it was used to induce a religious fervor. In fact, fly amanita mushrooms may have been the main ingredient in soma, a ritual drink frequently mentioned in the Hindu religious text, the Rigveda. Soma, whose use has since died out, was made with the juice from the stalks of certain plants. Hindu tradition says the drink and the plant, which is also considered a god, all carry the same name. But fly amanita has long been a strong contender for the real identity of that plant, mainly because of the effects of soma mentioned in Hindu religious texts, and of ceremonial urine drinking.

If I were to sample some fly amanita, either dried, or maybe in a steeped tea, or perhaps in the urine of a helpful assistant, I might experience twitching, trembling or numbness in my arms and legs. I might feel happy, leading to singing and dancing. I might hallucinate colored visions, or see things much larger than they are, according to the "Golden Guide." I might grow violent, then fall into a deep sleep. I might develop strange convictions -- that I'm a newborn, or can fly. I might believe I'm in the presence of God. I might believe I am God.

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Beyond the effects of

Amanita muscaria

, fungi are magical all by themselves. Fungi are not plants; they live in their own kingdom, which includes mushrooms. What sets them apart from plants, and makes them like animals, is a material they have in their cell walls called chitin. Chitin makes up the hard outer shells of insects and other creatures with external skeletons.

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The fly amanita is common in the Northern Hemisphere, especially around pine and birch trees. But why do mushrooms and other fungi carpet the ground after it rains? Fungi live in a hidden world, often below the ground, connected by a web of very small filaments called hyphae. Hyphae are so thin that they dry out easily. Since it takes many, many hyphae to come together to create a mushroom, that's easiest when the threads can stay wet for a while.

We only see fungi when hyphae come together and shoot fruits into the light of day as caps, puffballs, mushrooms, ears and other forms. The fungal organisms we can't see can be as small as a square foot, or as large as 30 acres. New research has emerged that suggests hyphae play a role in supporting forests through so-called mycorrhizal links. The fungal filaments act as highways between trees, delivering nutrients from older, stronger trees to saplings, forming a critical web of carbon, nitrogen and water delivery -- a kind of tree communications system. Now that's magic.

Find out more about amazing mushrooms!