There are signs that the first interest in active cultivation of plants (or agriculture) in Australia stemmed from a desire to grow psychoactive plants. It could be a desire like this helped create agriculture worldwide.
Some have suggested that the earliest plants cultivated in the Near East were narcotics like belladonna/nightshade, henbane, and mandrake.
Similarly, in North America the native Blackfoot peoples (and many other native Americans) cultivated nothing but tobacco before the arrival of the Europeans.
Widespread drug use in the vicinity of southeast Asia appears to have emerged in the practice of betel-chewing, between 7,000 BC and 5,500 BC. Even by 2,000 AD perhaps 10% of the world's population will remain active users of the drug. Leaves of the Piper betle plant are used, wrapped around a seed of the Areca catechu palm, with a substance like slaked lime combined with the seed. Heavy use turns the teeth black.
During late prehistoric times the most often used drugs in Eurasia seem to have been psychoactive plants such as mandrake, opium (source of both heroin and morphine), and marijuana. Opium was farmed in the region of the western Mediterranean around 6,000 BC. Opium offers other benefits such as its seeds in baking and its seed oil burned for cooking and lighting purposes, but its greatest use seems to have been for its psychoactive properties.
The psychoactive aspects of opium were used for more than pain-relief. They were also utilized for spiritual reasons (achieving mind-altered states).
Around 6,000 BC natives of southern South America began actively cultivating certain plants, including tobacco, and the practice would eventually spread across all the Americas. For many of the cultivators tobacco was by far the most important product of their endeavors (food output from the efforts came in a distant second).
Beer and wine making was being done around 4,000 BC and perhaps still earlier in Eurasia and Africa.
Alcohol tended first to be used in combination with the older mind-alterring substances, then gradually displaced those previous substances almost entirely in the west-- except possibly in times of especially great need, such as for preparation for surgery or to alleviate very painful illness or injuries.
Alcohol combined with other substances such as mandrake would often be used as an anaesthetic for surgery around 100 AD. Mythology of the time indicates men also knew such substances aided in the seduction of women.
Cannabis/marijuana was in widespread use over Eurasia before 3,500 BC. Cannabis was not only remarkable for its psychoactive elements, but its fiber strength as well (hemp). It was an excellent primitive source of fibers for ropes and the like. Shamans of Asia used it in their rituals.
|-- 'The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age'... ["http://www.csp.org/chrestomathy/lost_civilizations.html"] by Rudgley, Richard. (1999). New York: The Free Press. ISBN: 0-684-85580-1; web compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby|
By the early 21st century a multitude of harmful effects had been found to accompany many of the drugs of choice of ancient humanity, listed above-- at least where excessive amounts were consumed, and/or mixed with other deleterious substances or behavior.
But less well known by the early 21st century are the various beneficial health effects which will have been found for various of the early drugs adopted by mankind (at least in moderate dosages). For example, alcoholic drinks such as wine can help older men stay sharper mentally longer than would otherwise be the case. They can also reduce cancer risks for men and women alike. Marijuana can relieve pain and chronic nausea, thereby encouraging the ill to continue eating and therewith postpone death due to starvation. It may also kill some brain tumors. Betel nuts can reduce the symptoms of mental illness. Even tobacco shows signs of some beneficial properties-- although to prove a net benefit to users (i.e., be so advantageous as to cancel out its negative effects), only a very few people with very particular ailments might be recommended to use it.
And all the above are in addition to the mind-alterring effects sought out by ancient peoples in these substances. Research indicates that such mind effects themselves could offer some beneficial effects (where the practice is not abused) by relieving stress, allowing relaxation, and aiding sleep.
As little as one glass of wine a week appears to measurably reduce a person's colon cancer risk.
-- Wine Drinking May Reduce Colon Cancer Risk By AliciaMarie Belchak, Reuters Health/Yahoo! Health Headlines, October 17, 2000]
Moderate alcohol usage (up to one drink a day) offers better resistance to mental decline in men 50 or older than either abstinence or heavy drinking.
-- More Evidence That Drinking Is Good for You, Reuters/Yahoo! Science Headlines, July 31, 2000
Regular betel nut chewing appears to help reduce signs of schizophrenia. Tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, and betel nuts are sources of the most commonly used drugs on Earth circa 2000.
-- Chewing betel nut improves schizophrenia symptoms, Reuters Health/Yahoo! Health Headlines, August 29, 2000 (British Journal of Psychiatry 2000;177:174-178 is cited); Chew on this by Abbie Thomas, From New Scientist magazine, 05 August 2000, (The British Journal of Psychiatry (vol 177, p 174) is cited)
Injected chemicals derived from marijuana killed tumors of a rare and deadly brain cancer in a third of animal tests performed; another third of cancer-ridden test subjects survived longer than expected after the injection.
Marijuana has also been found useful in pain relief and the alleviation of nausea.
-- Study Says Marijuana Ingredients Kill Rat Tumors By Lisa Richwine, Reuters/Yahoo! Science Headlines, February 28, 2000, and Pot may block fatal brain cancer, Reuters Health/Yahoo! Health Headlines, February 28, 2000 (Nature Medicine 2000;6:255-256, 313-319 cited)
The practice of chewing gum dates back at least as far as around 7000 BC in northern europe. Birch bark tar was the preferred substance, and was also pressed into service for purposes such as waterproofing and aiding in attaching handles to bladed tools. Birch bark tar may have released antibiotic substances during chewing; mention of it relieving sore throats can be found in historical documents. It may also have been used to hold in place toothache relieving agents inside cavities. The gum chewing may have helped clean teeth.
Most prehistoric chewers seem to have been children and young teens, suggesting it was an aid in ridding them of baby teeth and reducing the pain associated with same. Parents may also have administered the gum as a sort of pacifier.
Pine resin offered much of the same chewing properties, and for less preparation effort, but was less often used than the tar, for reasons which remain unclear in the 20th century AD.
The preparation process for the tar in prehistoric times is also a mystery, as it seems to require relatively high temperatures in sealed ceramic vessels for any substantive output. In the earliest times of its usage, such vessels are not thought to have been available. So how was it prepared?
-- Chew, chew, that ancient chewing gum by Elizabeth Aveling, British Archaeology, no 21, February 1997
Tobacco smoke offers up a chemical to reduce the risk of Parkinson's disease.
-- Chemical in tobacco smoke may protect against Parkinson's By Karla Harby, Reuters Health/Yahoo! Health Headlines, March 28, 2000