Approximately 100,000 species of fungi are known. Wild psychoactive mushrooms, known scientifically as basidiomycetes (club fungi), are the fruiting bodies of saprophytes, meaning they obtain their food by direct absorption of nutrients from the soil or other medium, such as the decomposing manure of ruminants or the decaying leaves, twigs and wood of plants. The nutrients are dissolved by enzymes, and then absorbed through the fungi’s thin cell walls. Since they lack chlorophyll, they always feed on live or dead matter bringing about the decay and decomposition of all organic matter on our planet.
Most fungi reproduce by spores (fig. 1), tiny particles of protoplasm enclosed in sturdy cell walls. A common mushroom produces 10 billion or more spores on its fruiting body, while giant puffballs produce as many as several trillion. Spores are the seeds of a mushroom. They are found on the gill plates on the underside of the cap of a gilled mushroom. When the mushroom cap has fully opened and separated from its veil, the mature spores are dispersed by the wind or fall directly beneath the mushroom. Various small animals and insects, notably dung beetles and millipedes, feed on mushrooms and are instrumental in spore distribution. When the spores land on a habitable medium, they germinate and form hyphae, which grow and spread under the surface into many small fine silk-like hairs that collectively form the mushroom mycelium (spawn). The mycelium grows, radiating outward into large, occasionally vast mats that permeate the material in which it is growing. When conditions are correct, the mycelium fruits and a mushroom appear above the ground. One primary medium is the manure of four-legged ruminants such as cattle, buffalo, horses and sheep. Additionally some groups of insects are known to cultivate mushrooms as food (ambrosia beetles, tropical leaf-cutting ants, and certain groups of termites). Encarta, 2000).
WORLDWIDE DISTRIBUTION OF TRYPTAMINE-CONTAINING MUSHROOMS
Mushrooms come in many different sizes, shapes and colors and the mushrooms under discussion here are those capable of producing altered states of consciousness brought on by the alkaloids psilocine and psilocybine. Mushrooms with these properties are referred to as, hallucinogenic, narcotic, magic, sacred, psychedelic, psychoactive, entheogenic and neurotropic. They have a great diversity and a large world distribution and in 1957, only seven species were known to the world. However, numerous species of neurotropic mushrooms have since been identified.
More than 180 species of fungi are recognized as containing the tryptamine alkaloids psilocine and/or psilocybine. They are Agaricales and include the genera Psilocybe (117 species), Gymnopilus (13 species), Panaeolus (7 species), Copelandia (12 species), Hypholoma (6 species), Pluteus (6 species), Inocybe (6 species), Conocybe (4 species), and Agrocybe, Galerina and Mycena (one each). Concerning the distribution of Psilocybe, the majority of the species are found in the subtropical humid forests of Mexico and New Guinea. Mexico has the highest number of neurotropic fungi, with 76 species), of which 44 belong to Psilocybe (39% of the world).
Neurotropic mushrooms have been identified as far north as Alaska and Siberia in the northern hemisphere and as far south as Chile, Australia, and New Zealand in the southern hemisphere. They gro wild from California in the western United States of North America to China and Japan, and from sea level to the high mountain regions up to 4,000 m elevation (e.g. Psilocybe aztecorum in high mountains of Mexico at 4000 m elevation). As Gartz (1996) has pointed out, "The mushrooms occur in abundance wherever mycologists abound" (Guzmán, Allen and Gartz, 2000).
Although neurotropic fungi occur worldwide, knowledge of their distribution is still poorly developed. When they were first rediscovered and documented (Heim, 1956a, 1956b; Singer, 1949), for a time it was believed that they occurred only in Mexico. Later, numerous species were found in North and South America, Europe, Siberia, southwestern Asia and Japan (Singer and Smith, 1958). Guzmán, in his 1983 monograph on the genus Psilocybe showed distribution in all the continents. Recently, Allen & Merlin (1992) and Guzmán (1995) described new species Psilocybe in the U.S.A., Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Spain, Thailand and New Zealand. Gartz et al. (1995) and Stamets and Gartz (1995) reported new species from South Africa and the U.S.A., respectively, confirming the broad distribution of these peculiar fungi. In this way it seems that the diversity, ecological and geographical distribution of the neurotropic fungi is so vast and complex, that Guzmán, Allen and Gartz (2000) decided to publish a check-list of the known species and their distribution throughout the world and presented a map of that distribution (fig. 2).
Today we lack records of neurotropic fungi from several parts of the world, including Russia, Mongolia, Arabia and Turkey, and many regions of Africa or the Middle East, but this is not to say they don’t exist. Magic mushrooms enjoy growing popularity amongst young teenagers in Russia, Africa and Israel, where western influence brings knowledge of their existence. There are no presently known records of wild Psilocybe from Korea, and Hawaii. Even in the U. S. A., mycological research is somewhat limited in several states, such as Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, where there are no records of neurotropic species of Psilocybe. Most recently, two new species have been documented in Georgia, Psilocybe weilii and Psilocybe atlantis and a new species are now reported from Czechoslovakia (Psilocybe arcana) and Cambodia (Psilocybe angkoria (syn.=Psilocybe antioquiensis sp. Nov).
At an archeological site in the Non Nak Tha region of northern Thailand, the bones of Bos indicus cattle were recently unearthed in conjunction with human remains. We know that Psilocybe cubensis flourishes in the manure of cattle and buffalo in this region of northeastern Thailand. Terence McKenna has suggested that the temporal and physical relationship between the human bones and the bones of cattle is conclusive evidence that psychoactive mushrooms were known to the people who frequented this region around 15,000 B.P., (McKenna, 1992). He suggested that the consumption of these types of mushrooms provided a certain impetus to humanity’s intellectual evolution.
On the Tassili Plains in northern Algeria, cave paintings dating as far back as 9000 B. C. E. (Samorini. 1992; Gartz, 1996) portray anthropomorphic figures with mushroom images on their bodies, evidence that mushrooms were known and used in a mystic manner. Emboden (1979) describes, among traditional folk remedies from the 2nd century Chin dynasty in China, a cure for‘the laughing sickness,” mushroom intoxication attributed to the accidental ingestion of psilocybian mushrooms. In 11th century Japanese folklore there is a story of a group of woodcutters and nuns who became lost, hungry, and then quite inebriated after consuming what is believed to have been psilocybian-containing fungi. This exciting tale is recorded in the Japanese classic ‘Tales of Long Ago’ and cited in (Sanford, 1972).
HISTORICAL DOCUMENTATION OF FUNGAL SACRAMENTS
Ethnomycologist R. Gordon and Valentina P. Wasson first reported the use of certain fungi as divinatory sacraments in mainstream western media publications. They documented such use, first in article published by Life magazine and in several books and numerous journal publications (Wasson, 1957; Wasson, 1958; Wasson and Wasson, 1957; Schultes, 1939, 1940). This discovery and dispensation guided the course of many in western society and eventually reached the consciousnesses of millions of interested peoples. They also brought to the attention of the world three other families of fungi capable of invoking cerebral mycetisms in both humans and animals. These include the Soma fungi Amanita muscaria and related species, the ergot fungi Claviceps purpurea, and certain fungi belonging to the genera’s, Boletus, Heimiella, and Russula.
The following notes provide a brief history of the use of Amanita muscaria in the Old World as well as in the New World. Additionally, we note the use of the ergot mushrooms from which Albert Hofmann accidentally discovered LSD. It has been suggested that the Kykeon of the ancient Greeks employed ritualistically at the Temple of Dionysus, may have been from ergot compounds extracted from wild grasses in the Mediterranean (Wasson, Hofmann & Ruck, 1978). And furthermore, we will mention the use of certain species of Boletus, Russulas and Heimiellas by aborigines in the New Guinea Highlands.
The earliest record of the possible use of Amanita muscaria as an inebriant is in the ancient Vedic Hymns of India. Urine drinking associated with mushroom intoxication is mentioned in the Rig Veda (9th and 10th mandala of the Rig Veda).
Travelers and explorers in Siberia reported this practice during the late seventeenth and eighteenth century. In her books, "Windmills of the Mind" and "Hallucinogens: Cross Cultural Perspectives," Marlene Dobkin de Rios (1976, 1984) discusses the custom of Amanita urine-drinking by the reindeer herdsmen of Siberia. It is likely that some psilocybian mushrooms were also historically used in Siberian shamanism (Wasson, 1968). Recent research shows that certain isolated groups of Finn-Ugrian people, the Ostyak and the Vogul of western Siberia, today employ Amanita muscaria shamanistically, as do the Chukchee, Koryak and Kamchadal people of northeastern Siberia (Heizer, 1944; Brekham & Sam, 1967; Wasson, 1968; LaBarre, 1975).
The contemporary use of Amanita muscaria is not restricted geographically to Siberia (Arthur, 2000; Ruck & Staples, 2001). Graves (1960) and Schultes (1976) have revealed that some Finns and Lapps, as well as Afghanis use this species. Its use is also well documented in Japan and the Philippines.
Among some groups of North American Indians (Wasson, 1979), the Dogrib Athabascan (Schultes & Hofmann 1979) and the Ojibway of Northern Michigan and Ontario (Keewaydinoquay, 1978, 1979, 1998; Wasson, 1979b), use of Amanita species as a sacrament dates back over four hundred years. Several tribes (Ojibway, Chippewa, Iroquois and others), have stories of little people associated with mushrooms which imply a hidden widespread knowledge of entheogenic mushrooms among North American tribes.
The active ingredients isolated from Amanita muscaria include ibotenic acid and muscimol (Saleminck, 1963; Eugster, Muller & Good, 1965). The same causative agents have also been isolated from a similar species; Amanita pantherina (Takemoto, Nakajima & Sakuma, 1964). Both species are sometimes employed recreationally in the Pacific Northwest region of the North America (Ott, 1978b; Weil, 1977, 1980) and in Europe (Fericgla, 1992, 1993; Festi and Bianchi, 1991). There are several other species of Amanita, which also contain these classical agents (Ott, 1993; Guzmán, Allen & Gartz, 2000), but have no history of sacramental or recreational use. The chemical compounds found in Amanita species are vastly different in action to those fungi known to contain the alkaloids psilocine and/or psilocybine.
Claviceps purpurea and LSD
A psychoactive fungus, Claviceps purpurea, is the most likely basis of another historically significant sacramental substance, the ‘kykeon’ beverage of the ancient Greek rites of Demeter and Persephone, which were held annually for over 2,000 years at Eleusis, outside of Athens, at the temple of Dionysus in the Elysian Fields. This ergot fungus is found on several wild grasses common in the Mediterranean region (Ott, 1978a; Wasson, Ruck & Hofmann. 1978; Schultes and Hofmann, 1973, 1979). Lysergic acid is a component of ergot, a small purple fungus that deforms the grains (Hofmann, 1980, 1983). From this, Albert Hofmann derived LSD in the Sandoz laboratories in Basel, Switzerland. Ergot fungi belong to the genus Claviceps, of the family Clavicipitaceae.
Boletus, Heimella and Russula
There is substantial evidence of the continuing use on the islands of New Guinea of several other families of fungi, Boletus, Heimiella, and Russula (Singer, 1958b; Reay, 1959, 1960; Singer, 1960; Heim & Wasson, 1964, 1965; Nelson, 1970; Heim, 1972; Rios, 1976, 1984). The Kuma people of the Western Highlands know these mushrooms as Nonda. Tribes belonging to the Nangamp (the Danga) call them Nong'n. Effects attributed to these fungi appear to resemble chronic states of hysteria and madness. It is reported that this madness may last for up to two days. The term therogen [becoming a beast] has been adopted to describe New Guinea context of such use. Species used by these natives include: Boletus flammeus Heim, B. reayi Heim, B. kumeus Heim, B. manicus Heim, and B. nigroviolaceus Heim. Heimella anguiformis Heim and H. retispora Heim; Russula agglutinata Heim, R. maenadum Heim, R. kirinea Heim, R. pseudomaenadum Heim, R. nondorbingi Singer and R. wahgiensis Singer. Stearic acids have been found in two species of Russula. Causative agents in the other species of mushrooms used by Nangamp natives are as yet unidentified.
Another species of fungus found in New Guinea is Psilocybe kumaenorum Heim, and it has been suggested by Guzmán (1983) that its psychoactive properties may be known of and used by these aborigines.
PSILOCYBINE MUSHROOM USE IN MESOAMERICA
Central and North Americam psychoactive and other mushrooms were first documented in the writings of early Spanish chroniclers, which included naturalists, botanists and members of the clergy. Knowledge of these mushrooms and other sacred plants became known to the western world due to the writings of Schultes (1939, 1940), Singer (1949, 1958), Singer and Smith (1958), Heim (1956a, b, 1957a), Wasson and Wasson (1957, 1958), Heim & Wasson (1958) and Wasson, V. (1958).
While the Spanish may or may not have been the first to explore this brave new world of ours, they were the first to have recorded the history of their discoveries in the New World. Furthermore, these Spanish invaders, as explorers, were also seeking such treasures as Coronado’s "Seven Cities of Cibola" (the lost city of gold or "El Dorado" as it later became known), the "fountain of youth" and even aphrodisiacs to seduce young women. There are numerous references in the literature alluring to the fact that the mushrooms were a possible aphrodisiac (Wasson, 1980; Allen, 1997).
As the conquest spread through Central America and Mexico, the historians observed the Aztec priests and their followers being served the sacred fungi at festivals and other celebrations. The Nahuatl speaking Aztec priests called the mushrooms teonanácatl (Teunamacatlth), translatable as “Flesh of the Gods." According to Wasson (1980), "teo" probably meant awesome or wondrous and “nanacatl” implied mushroom or even meat.
The magic mushroom was only one of many fungi described in codices written by the Spanish in the 15th century. They relate that the mushrooms were often administered among the common people, merchants, visiting dignitaries. The wealthy consumed them served with honey or chocolate. Botanists and historians, eager to please their masters back in Spain, reported the effects of the mushrooms in diabolical terms. They described the effects of these mushrooms and other plants as leaving their users in uncontrollable fits, claiming that when under the influence, native people would even commit violent acts towards themselves and each other.
They reported that many would fall into rages or into a stupor. While this may indeed be simply symptoms of ignorance regarding Shamanic trance and it’s outward appearances it is most likely that this ignorance was useful to those who could profit from the strangeness rather than trying to understand it. These descriptions could very well describe an alcoholic syndrome in contemporary society, but can also be compared in context to indicate strange plant usage and pagan practices. To the god-fearing Europeans of those days, this was reason enough for the devil-possessed natives. The Spanish were also a very mycophobic (mushroom-fearing) people who deplored the Aztec rituals and the priests who employed mushrooms and other magical plants as divinatory substances (Sahagún, 1956).
During this period of conquest, the Spanish invaders proceeded to rape the land of its many resources and strip away the native peoples of their culture, heritage and religion. Soon they thus began their indoctrination of their way of life into that of the native population. This was achieved largely through the fear of death. Soon the conquerors began to indoctrinate and enslave the Native Americans and converted many Aztecs into the world of Christendom. Eventually, the conquerors succeeded in their endeavor to devour the land they now laid claim to while the botanists and clergy began to initiate the long and somewhat tedious task of cataloging and recording on paper all that they had discovered in the new world.
The numerous descriptions recorded by the Spanish clergy and historians concerning the effects of these drug/herb plants and their use by the Aztec people treats the subject with loathing and fear, rife in bigotry and this is somehow justified by demonizing them as evil or some type of heresy. All of the typical mind-control tactics were used to discredit the practice of religious plant consumption, effectively duping the feeble-minded into thinking that plants and their unauthorized usage was evil and of the Devil. For example: one author described the mushrooms as "Hongol demonico ydolo" (for more terms and names of the sacred mushrooms, see Allen, 1997c and Guzmán, 1997).
The Spanish persecuted, often murderously, those who did not adhere to the Catholic ways. This persecution caused the native population to hide the use of these mushrooms from their Spanish peers and over the intervening centuries, the native people concealed their use of the sacred mushrooms from outsiders. Thus the sacred mushrooms remained a secret until the Wassons celebrated velada with Dona María Sabina in 1955. While the ludible use of psilocybian mushrooms is worldwide, the traditional use of these mushrooms is best documented in certain mountain areas of the Mexican State of Oaxaca in the Sierra Mazateca region of Southern Mexico. It is there where local Shamans still employ the sacred mushrooms in magico-religious ceremonies as their ancestors the Olmecs, Toltecs, and Aztecs did for almost two millennia. Such use and practice once flourished amongst the Nahuatl peoples and today seven tribes of indigenous native inhabitants currently employ more than two dozen species of the sacred mushrooms in a ritual context for the purpose of healing and curing through divination and/or via magico-religious veladas (Wasson & Wasson; Schultes, 1939, 1940; Singer, 1958a).
We would know little or nothing of these indigenous peoples’ use of the mushrooms was it not for Dońa María Sabina, a Mazatec curandera who shared her secrets with R. Gordon Wasson and photographer Alan Richardson and made it possible for all of us to experience her ecstatic and sacred knowledge.
Additionally, Mayan cultures of Central America may also have employed the mushroom entheogens ceremoniously (J. M. Jenkins 1998).
Guzmán (1997) reported more than two hundred common names were used by various groups of Indians living in the Sierra Mazateca of Oaxaca, but now the rare word teonanácatl, first reported by Sahagún (1569-1582) and then by Schultes (1939), is now commonly used by western society to name any Mexican hallucinogenic fungi. However, teonanácatl is not known of nor used by any local indigenous peoples currently residing in Mesoamerica. Among the most common Spanish names used to refer to the sacred mushrooms are: San Isidros (a saint of agriculture), pajaritos (“little birds”) and derrumbes (“landslides”). These are the most common names used when describing Psilocybe cubensis and/or P. subcubensis, P. mexicana and P. zapotecorum, respectively (Guzmán, 1997; Guzmán, Allen & Gartz, 2000; Allen, 1997).