Written by Dr. Samuel Douglas
Edited by Tara Ruttenberg and the Mushroom Tao team
Archeological evidence for the use of psilocybin-containing mushrooms is widespread and dates back further than you may think. Rock art in present-day Algeria depicting the use of Psilocybe mairei is estimated to be at least 9,000 years old. Similar cave art in Spain suggests humans in this region used psilocybin at least 6,000 years ago.
We can find more recent evidence for ritual and religious use of psilocybin mushrooms in Central America and Mexico. Mayan statues known as “mushroom stones” are linked to the ritual use of psilocybin as far back as 1000 BCE.
Traditional use of these mushrooms, called "Teonanácatl" by the Aztecs, for medicinal and religious purposes continued into more recent times. Spanish missionaries describe the ceremonial use of cacao, followed by elixirs made of mushrooms and honey.
While Spanish authorities forbade these practices during the colonial occupation, the knowledge and traditions have been secretly kept alive by small groups, most notably the Mazatec in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.
The story of how Western awareness of psilocybin mushrooms became widespread begins with two people: Maria Sabina and Gordon Wasson. Wasson worked as a banker in the US but had a passion for studying how people worldwide use fungi in different ways. He had read tales of the Teonanácatl mushroom and, in 1955, decided to track it down.
His investigations led him to the Sierra Mazateca, and eventually to Huautla de Jiménez, where he met a local curandera, Maria Sabina. Sabina worked with Psilocybe mexicana mushrooms to cure illness through a velada healing ceremony. To get closer to the medicine, Wasson convinced her to let him participate in the velada by pretending to be concerned for his own son’s health.
Wasson would return to study with Sabina a total of eight times. In 1957, he published an account of his experiences and discoveries in Life magazine, which immediately popularized the use of magic mushrooms worldwide. By the 1960s, the Oaxaca region in Mexico was well-known for its mushrooms and the experiences they produced. An increasing number of people, including Timothy Leary, traveled there to experience the mushrooms for themselves. Sadly, many locals shunned Sabina, blaming her for the lack of respect that newcomers showed to their sacred medicine.
It is worth noting that Maria Sabina never made any significant financial profit from providing the gift of the mushrooms to Wasson and the rest of the world. Today, as an increasing number of individuals and corporations devise ways to benefit from psilocybin and other psychedelics, the idea of sacred reciprocity (that we must give and receive in equal measure to live in balance with nature) has become an important topic of discussion.
The 1960s and 70s were a tumultuous time socially, scientifically, and politically. While psychedelic therapy, mainly using LSD, gained a promising start in the 1950s, some of the research at the time was controversial or deeply unethical. Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass) lost their positions at Harvard over the use of psilocybin with and on students. The CIA made use of LSD in some of their problematic MK-ULTRA mind-control experiments.
Amidst conservative backlash against the changing social values popularized by the hippy movement, along with widespread dissent over the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon exploited the connection between psychedelics and progressive politics, and declared the “War on Drugs.” Within a short time, psilocybe mushrooms were effectively illegal throughout the US, and most (though not all) countries followed blindly in turn. Those who advocated for the benefits of psychedelic substances were marginalized and perceived as “enemies of the state.”
Despite the legal restrictions prohibiting their use, fungi are intelligent and adapt to even the most difficult circumstances. Just like how underground mycelium forms truffles that store energy and potential when conditions prevent mushrooms from growing, psilocybin found ways to survive and even thrive after it became illegal. Some countries, including the Netherlands, Costa Rica, and Jamaica decided against prohibition. In nations that banned it, some local communities decided to not enforce the laws (i.e. mushroom shakes sold at bars in certain parts of Thailand and Cambodia). All over the world, networks of mushroom enthusiasts, underground therapists, and counterculture rebels kept the movement going. With the advent of the Internet, these folks found new ways to connect, first on Usenet newsgroups then on forums such as The Shroomery.
Out of sight of the authorities, stories of the healing power of mushrooms continued to emerge and spread. By the 2000s, these stories inspired scientists to resume research on psilocybin. And the previous 50 years of non-clinical use meant they already knew it was safe and non-addictive. Thankfully, in a short time, clinical research on psilocybin has gone from almost nonexistent to attracting significant funding. As an introduction to this growing field of study, the following section provides brief explanations of a few terms commonly used in the psychedelic world.