The Power of the Poppy
The following is excerpted from The Power of the Poppy, available from Inner Traditions.
In the Beginning
Neolithic and Mesolithic archaeologists are at a distinct disadvantage. No written records remain of the people they are studying; any legends of their traditions and cultures have long since been forgotten, buried under multiple waves of cultural invasions and counterinvasions. While tribes may have built stone megaliths, they generally resided in wooden huts or longhouses that were ill-suited for surviving for millennia in the moist European clime. We have only the most scattered and fragmentary evidence left to us, and piecing it together to find any kind of definitive answer is challenging in the extreme. The best we can hope for is educated guesswork and enlightened speculation -- which must, of course, be colored by the prejudices and preconceptions of those who are left to interpret these puzzles.
The Dawn of Poppy Cultivation
Approximately 7,500 years ago agricultural communities began to develop along the basin of the Danube River. Within less than two hundred years they had spread to what would become Belgium and northern France in the west and Ukraine in the east. Where their ancestors had foraged and hunted for a living, these people (called linearbandkeramik, or LBK, for their distinctive pottery) worked the land for their food. They took cues -- and seeds -- from the Near East, where farming had been taking place for millennia. Among the charred remains of their fires, archaeologists have found traces of emmer and einkorn wheat, linseed (flax), lentils, and peas, crops that originated in modern-day Turkey, Syria, Israel, and Iran. But amid all those eastern seeds was one other nonnative plant that came not from the east but from the southwest -- Papaver somniferum, otherwise known as the opium poppy.
Today most botanists believe P. somniferum descends from Papaver setigerum, a wild poppy growing in the western Mediterranean. P. setigerum is found in Italy, northern Africa, eastern Spain, the Mediterranean coast of France, and the Canary Islands. P. setigerum is slightly smaller than P. somniferum; its leaves are thinner, with long, jagged teeth tipped with a bristle that is not found on P. somniferum leaves. They also lack P. somniferum's waxy coating. Like its domesticated cousin, P. setigerum contains morphine alkaloids; indeed, the two poppies are so similar that some botanists believe them to be the same species.
It has been suggested that poppies were introduced to LBK agriculture through trade with the La Hoguette culture, a group known primarily by its distinctive bone-tempered pottery. The La Hoguette culture is believed to have originated in southern and southwestern France. They descended from an earlier impressed ware culture that resided on the shores of the Mediterranean. La Hoguette and LBK pottery has been found together at many sites east and west of the Rhine, suggesting that contact and trade took place between the two cultures.
From there, poppies continued on their journey northward. A dig at Raunds, a site in rural Northamptonshire, England, uncovered eight opium poppy seeds dated from the early Neolithic period (5,800-5,600 years ago). While opium poppies can grow as weeds, the lack of other weeds in the ditch and the absence of cereal remains suggest this plant may have been a crop in its own right. While Neolithic civilization has traditionally been envisioned as scattered collections of hunter-gatherers who supplemented their foraging with primitive agriculture, the Raunds poppy seeds reveal trade routes between Britain and the Continent. They also suggest that the people of Raunds held poppies in high regard -- high enough, at least, to carry seeds across the English Channel, then haul them into the East Midlands and plant them.
At Cuevo de los Murciélagos (Cave of the Bats, a Neolithic burial site located in Albuñol, Granada, in southern Spain) we find still more evidence of poppy usage. Thanks to the cave's arid conditions, the round, woven grass bags that were buried with the dead have been preserved, along with their contents -- large numbers of poppy capsules, which have been shown by carbon dating to be more than six thousand years old. Given the somnolence caused by ingestion of poppies, it seems clear that even at this early date they were associated with death and, presumably, with shamanic journeying.
Excavations at Egolzwil, an archaeological site located in Switzerland's Lucerne canton, have revealed signs of poppy cultivation dating back more than six thousand years, including poppy seed cakes and poppy heads. These may have been used to feed their cattle in emergencies (cattle generally dislike foraging on bitter-tasting poppies and will eat them only if no better food is available), but these farmers would certainly have known that poppies can produce intoxication and even death in cattle if too many are given. Yet evidence suggests that poppies were the most common crop at Egolzwil, more common than club wheat, barley, or flax.
Even earlier evidence of opium poppy use comes from recent underwater archaeological work at La Marmotta, a site in Lake Bracciano, Italy (northwest of Rome). La Marmotta was occupied by a Neolithic farming community for about five hundred years before it was abandoned, then submerged by water some 7,700 years ago. Based on the sophisticated artifacts found at the La Marmotta site -- and the paucity of evidence for any other contemporaneous cities or villages in the area -- archaeologists believe this was a colony from another civilization in Greece or the Near East. And given the model boats (along with a well-preserved longboat found buried in the mud), it seems likely that there was considerable water traffic between the La Marmotta colony and traders from other civilizations.
"This was not an ordinary village," says Maria Antonietta Fugazzola Delpino, director of the La Marmotta expedition. "The people were in touch with other communities in the Mediterranean. We picture it as a kind of highway -- there were many ships coming and going." Organic remains preserved beneath three meters of limestone included poppy seeds, presumably cultivated for food, oil, medicine, and possibly for religious use. It may be here that poppies and their seeds were first brought eastward from Europe. Two thousand years later they would be seen again in the kingdom of Sumeria.
Exploring the Archaeological Record
Most of what we know of the LBK and La Hoguette cultures comes from shards of their pottery and scraps gleaned from long-buried campfire sites where they cooked their meals. We do not know whether they encountered each other through trade, through warfare, or (as seems likely, given what we know of posthistoric humankind) through some combination thereof. We do not know whether the LBK culture consisted of colonists moving in via the Balkans (as some theorize) or whether it sprung up among the indigenous people after they were exposed to pottery, agriculture, and other accoutrements of the "Neolithic Revolution."
If we know little about LBK culture, we know even less about the La Hoguette peoples. Their sites show evidence that they, like contemporaneous Mediterranean cultures, had domesticated sheep and goats but not cattle or pigs. Their pottery also shows evidence of Mediterranean influence, but the stone tools recovered at their sites are very similar to those used by earlier regional Mesolithic cultures. And while we believe that the LBK culture acquired poppies from the La Hoguette people, thanks to P. setigerum's distribution, we cannot say for certain. While wild poppies grow in the region of the La Hoguette culture, to date no seeds have been found at the few La Hoguette sites that have been excavated.
It is difficult to distinguish between the carbonized seeds of wild and domesticated poppies. Furthermore, their small size means that only a very few poppy seeds have been found at LBK sites. This makes it difficult to determine how extensive the cultivation of poppies was among Neolithic farmers, especially since cultivated poppies can quickly spread and become weeds given the proper soil and climate. As a result, some archaeologists have tried to downplay poppy cultivation among Central Europe's Neolithic and Mesolithic peoples, claiming that all evidence of poppies at their sites comes from wild poppies growing in the area. (This, of course, begs the question of how these wild poppies came to Central Europe in the first place.)
An artifact found in Meinling, Germany, however, suggests that poppies were of some considerable importance. This pot is more than six thousand years old and was made from clay tempered (mixed) with poppy seeds. While it is common for potters to temper clay with inert matter like straw or sand, poppy seeds are oily and not particularly suitable for use as a temper. Their usage in this context suggests this pot had some special purpose. Given the role of poppies in other cultures, we can speculate that it had some religious significance and may have been used as a sacramental vessel.
Furthermore, we should note that much early agriculture among hunter-gatherers involved "prestige" crops rather than staples. Early agriculture was laborious, backbreaking work. Forests were cleared with flint rocks chipped to produce an edge. Straight sticks were used to dig roots out of the ground, forked sticks to till the dirt, and sharpened stones to harvest wild-growing and cultivated grains. With such inefficient tools, it was difficult to produce large-scale food crops, especially in the moist, heavy soil of the LBK region. Hence, it is likely that many of the earliest crops were grown not to support the population but for ceremonial purposes. Many believe that grains were first grown to produce not bread but beer, or, as one archaeologist put it, "Thirst rather than hunger may have been the stimulus behind the origin of small grain agriculture."
Poppies produced oil that could be used in lamps -- but animal fat provided by abundant herds and game would serve a similar purpose. Poppy seed provided a food source -- but so did the hazelnuts that grew wild throughout the region. It is most unlikely that primitive farmers expended so much effort to establish poppies while remaining unaware of their psychoactive properties.
The Religion of Hunter-Gatherers
We limit the role of religion to "spiritual" questions, and we draw hard and fast lines between facts and myths. This is a very recent development, and one that is still controversial in many quarters. So too is our idea that the "soul" is something unique to humankind, not to mention our separation of this world from the heavenly realms. Among hunter-gatherer cultures, these distinctions are meaningless. They live in a world where the spiritual is immanent, where they have social relationships not only with their family and clan but also with the animals they hunt, the springs from which they draw water, and the plants that provide them with roots and berries.
The specific nature of this life force is envisioned differently among different groups. The hunter-gatherer Mbuti pygmies of the Congo envision the forest as father and mother. They sing to it while going about their daily affairs; in times of trouble they call on it by blowing their molimo trumpets and singing special songs to ensure it "awakens happy."8 To Australian Aborigines the "eternal" is present in daily life and temporal space, even if it sometimes becomes obscured in the day-to-day rhythms of an individual's existence; the spirit world presents itself in the rocks, trees, dances, songs, and experiences of the living. But the overarching theme remains: the life force that animates humans also animates other beings; they are as much a part of the community as the children and ancestors.
Because these "objects" are part of the community, they are treated as such. They are not only spoken to, but spoken with. They share their bodies and provide nourishment for the community, but they also share their wisdom and provide counsel and encouragement. Alternately, they may be hostile to the clan and treated with fear and healthy respect. The hunter-gatherer lifestyle has little to do with the idyllic but fictitious world of the "noble savage" -- they live in a world where disease, starvation, and injury are ever-present dangers and where those outside the clan are generally seen either as threats or as potential prey. But whether friend or foe, they are recognized as sentient and capable of communication.
Many world myths connect the development of agriculture to the gods. Dionysus taught Hellenics the secrets of viniculture while Athena gave the olive tree to the citizens of her namesake city. Various Native American tribes speak of how Corn Maiden took pity upon hungry humankind and gave them the gift of maize, while many Egyptologists connect the death and resurrection of Osiris with the sowing and harvesting of wheat. We see these stories as "creation myths" and "archetypal representations." But suppose we look at them from the hunter-gatherer viewpoint -- as literal truths?
If a species wished to propagate itself (and what species doesn't?), hitching its wagon to the fortunes of Neolithic humans would be a superb way of doing so. By communicating their likes and dislikes to the people who gathered their fruits, they could establish a partnership with carriers who would take their seeds farther than wind, water, or the vagaries of chance. They could ensure their offspring would be placed in fitting soil with proper drainage and light, not just scattered about randomly. They could take advantage of humankind's mobility and tool-making skills to spread their range farther. Today some people talk to their plants. Could it be that our hunter-gatherer ancestors learned how to farm by listening to theirs?
One of the first plants to share its secrets was the poppy. In a time when dysentery and stomach illnesses frequently proved fatal, the poppy provided potent medicine against diarrhea. In a world where those who made it to thirty were old and arthritis was commonplace, poppy provided relief from pain and allowed those who consumed it to continue serving the clan as productive hunters and foragers. Those who wished to explore alternate realities through the use of plant allies found Poppy to be invaluable. By drinking poppy tea or consuming poppy pods, they could induce hypnagogic states and vivid dream-visions.
As it cemented its symbiotic relationship with humankind, Poppy began developing higher concentrations of the alkaloids that were the secret of its power. In return, those whom it served returned the favor, and soon P. somniferum was spreading across Europe and into Asia.
Teaser image by R@jeev, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet