A Brief History of Magic Mushrooms

Some historians believe that magic mushrooms may have been used as far back as 9000 B.C. in North African indigenous cultures, based on representations in rock paintings. Statues and other representatives of what appear to be mushrooms that have been found in Mayan and Aztec ruins in Central America. The Aztecs used a substance called teonanácatl, which means "flesh of the gods," that many believe was magic mushrooms. Along with peyote, morning glory seeds and other naturally occurring psychotropics, the mushrooms were used to induce a trance, produce visions and communicate with the gods. When Spanish Catholic missionary priests came to the New World in the 16th century, some of them wrote about the use of these psychotropic substances.

However, the idea that magic mushrooms have a long, holy history is highly controversial. Some believe that none of this evidence is definitive, and that people are seeing what they want to see in the ancient paintings, sculptures and manuscripts. There is confirmed use among several contemporary tribes of indigenous peoples in Central America, including the Mazatec, Mixtec, Nauhua and Zapatec.

Magic mushrooms began to be eaten by Westerners in the late 1950s. A mycologist (one who studies mushrooms) named R. Gordon Wasson was traveling through Mexico to study mushrooms in 1955. He witnessed and participated in a ritual ceremony using magic mushrooms. It was conducted by a shaman of the Mazatec, an indigenous people who live in the Oaxaca region of southern Mexico. Wasson wrote an article about his findings, which was published in Life magazine in 1957. An editor came up with the title "Seeking the Magic Mushroom" and the article is the source of the phrase, although Wasson didn't use it. One of Wasson's colleagues, Roger Heim, had enlisted the help of Albert Hofmann (the "father" of LSD), who isolated and extracted psilocybin and psilocin from the mushrooms Heim and Wasson brought back from Mexico.

Timothy Leary, perhaps the most famous proponent of psychotropic drugs such as LSD, read the Life article and was intrigued. From there, magic mushrooms became inextricably tied to the hippie movement and its search for a new form of spirituality for the rest of the decade. The 1970s brought a ban on psilocybin except for medical research, which only recent began again after more than 30 years.

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