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The 10 Most Seductive Drugs -- And Their Fascinating History

A brief journey through time, from ancient Sumeria to modern New Jersey, uncovers the mysterious origins of the world's most beloved substances.

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1) Alcohol: Ancient Sumeria

Fans of alcohol are in good company; this is a drug that's been in use since the dawn of human time—if carbon dating of jugs found in Jiahu, China to around 8,000 BC is to be believed. But it wasn’t until we settled into agricultural societies that the wine really got flowing. Written records from ancient Sumeria document the uses and quantity of the beer—called "kash"—that was brewed. They even indicate that Sumerians had regulated drinking places similar to modern-day bars. The booze, for its part, was considered worthy of offering to the gods, and even thought to have a civilizing effect: The  Epic of Gilgameshmentions a wild man named Enkidu who was seduced to join civilization after he drank seven jugs of beer, “became expansive and sang with joy.” (A harlot was also, apparently, involved.)

2) Peyote: Mexico

Mescaline—the psychoactive ingredient in the peyote plant that's native to Mexico and the Southwest US—has probably been used in religious ceremonies since 3780–3660 BC, according to carbon dating of dried buttons found in a cave on the Rio Grande in Texas. Written records began once Catholic Spanish conquerors arrived in Mexico and were alarmed by the practice of eating or drinking peyote during religious festivals. In an effort to discourage use, priests were in the habit of asking their new congregationalists to confess to having experienced the drug’s hallucinogenic effects, right after they asked “Have you eaten the flesh of man?” and “Do you suck the blood of others?”

3) Marijuana: Siberia

Think medical marijuana is a new phenomenon? Not exactly. Chinese emperor Shen Nung first recommended brewing the leaves into a tea to relieve the symptoms of menstrual cramps, rheumatism, gout, malaria and even—hilariously—absentmindedness back in 2737 BC. Scythians, a people that lived in Siberia around the 7th century BC, were more into the drug for the fun; they were known to throw marijuana seeds onto stones that were heated during funeral ceremonies, inhaling the fumes to become intoxicated. Russian archeologists began to suspect that both male and female Scythians smoked marijuana regularly for pleasure when they found primitive pot pipes in tombs in 1929.

4) Opium: Greece

Those Sumerians were really into their substances. In addition to brewing beer, they also cultivated the opium poppy, which they called “the joy plant.” The Sumerians passed on their knowledge of opium-induced joy to the Assyrians, who in turn passed it on to Babylonians, Egyptians and Greeks. By the time of the Greek classical period, farmers on the island of Cyprus had invented harvesting knives of surgical quality to get the most out of the poppies, and extracts of the flower were a common additive to the poison hemlock cocktail used in executions. During this period, poppies were considered of such usefulness in inducing sleep and forgetfulness that they are often depicted as part of the clothing or possessions of three gods of the Greek pantheon: Hypnos (sleep), Nix (night), and Thanatos (death).

5) Coco: Peru

Early use of coca leaves resulted from a fortuitous correlation between optimal growing weather and the high altitudes in the South American Andes Mountains. From the reign of the Inca until the South American revolutionary wars, native laborers and soldiers chewed the leaves to increase alertness and oxygen intake, helping them fight, ferry goods or messages over long distances, or mine without requiring much food or rest. As one European visitor noted in later years, “Where Europeans would have halted and bivouacked, the ill-clad, barefooted Indians merely paused, for a short interval, to chew their Coca.”