What if it were marijuana’s medicinal qualities that originally inspired humans to light up, instead of the urge to get high? That’s the theory of some Washington State bioanthropologists just back from studying one of the world’s last hunter-gatherer societies—nomadic Africans in the Congo Basin who also happen to be among the world’s biggest pot smokers.
What’s clear is that the Aka people are managing to keep at bay an otherwise deadly infestation of intestinal worms entirely through diligent application of cannabis.
They are not doing it on purpose, however. The Aka, also known as Pygmies, enjoy weed because of what it does to their heads, not their intestines. A 1977 study of the group described its use as motivational: They “smoke to increase their courage on a hunt, dance better, increase their vital force, or to increase their work capacity when working for Europeans or village people,” researcher Barry Hewlett wrote at the time.
This next generation of Congo researchers, led by Washington State University researcher Ed Hagen, found the same. And then they deduced that the health benefits of enjoying a leaf-wrapped spliff in a Central African rainforest are evolutionary. The Aka may be unconsciously self-medicating.
This goes way beyond pot and Pygmies. Hagen thinks human use of all plant-based drugs followed the same path.
“We might have evolved a ‘taste’ for drugs for some utilitarian reason, such as defense against parasites,” Hagen said by email, “but then we elaborate this behavior in rituals, etc., exactly as we do for eating food and every other utilitarian behavior.
“Countless rituals have developed around food that do not relate to nutrition. The same goes for sex, clothing, shelter and other utilitarian behaviors. All these behaviors are (and were) essential to survival and reproduction, but we humans have a tendency to elaborate everything. We think the same might be true of recreational drugs.”
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