All roads lead to magic mushrooms in Huautla de Jiménez, a remote town in the mountains of northern Oaxaca, Mexico. Its cabs feature images of hallucinogenic fungi and they bring travellers through an official municipal arch decorated with mushrooms, to a taxi rank named after María Sabina, former resident and world famous Mazatec shaman, rumoured to have been visited by the likes of Bob Dylan and John Lennon.
“Thanks to María Sabina, my great-great grandmother, the ancestral medicine of the sacred mushrooms became known worldwide,” says Andrés Donaldo, who gives tours of his family’s property. It was there that an amateur mycologist, Gordon Wasson, became the first modern westerner to document an indigenous did xi tó – psychedelic mushroom in the Mazatec language – ceremony, back in 1955.
Wasson soon broadcast his findings to the world and millions were prompted to realise that mind-warping and consciousness-expanding fungi was all around them. A global tide of magic mushroom discoveries ensued from Alaska to southeast Asia. “It's incredible that María Sabina left us this culture of medicinal mushroom use,” adds Donaldo. “She was born with a special gift to heal and continue this legacy. It is very ancestral, it was here long before her.”
It is mind-boggling to consider the idea that few societies – from ancient times to the modern age – had woken up to the existence and ubiquity of fungi containing psilocybin, a hallucinogen with dozens of varieties which induce ecstasy and may have have antidepressant qualities. Wasson’s article on his experiences in Mexico was published in Life in 1957, and today, amid a mushrooming of consumption of hallucinogenic fungi, there’s debate as to whether we are making more use of them today than ever before. In short: Are we the mushroom people?
Only in central America and Siberia is there overwhelming historical evidence of long-term magic mushroom usage. “Wild mushrooms are spoken of, and they were eaten raw,” chronicled 16th century Spanish vicar Diego Durán, of Mexican psychedelic fungi ceremonies in honour of gods. “Those who eat them see visions and feel a fluttering of the heart; the visions they see are sometimes frightening and sometimes humorous. Those few who eat them in excess are driven to lust.”
It is this type of evidence – along with incontrovertibly shroomy Aztec and Mayan art – that is lacking elsewhere in the world. Given that many civilisations did not keep written records, and that what we know of Druids, for instance, is largely via the Romans who violently suppressed them, this is not necessarily surprising. Still, as the remains of ancient humans are periodically discovered and excavated, why has there not yet been a prehistoric corpse found anywhere with even traces of magic mushrooms?
There is some archaeological evidence suggestive of use 10,000 years ago in Australia, thanks to a mural featuring arguably shroom-headed figures. There are possibly mushroom-handed figures in north Africa from some 7,000 years ago and tantalising toadstool cave paintings dated to 6,000 years ago in Spain.
Some psychonaut academics have presented these as evidence of more widespread historic hallucinogenic mushroom consumption. “In one instance they are shown running joyfully, surrounded by the geometric structures of their hallucinations,” wrote the controversial late ethnobotanist Terrence McKenna in the bestselling 1992 book Food of the Gods. “The pictorial evidence seems incontrovertible.”
Other shroom fans suggest that it’s likely that undeniable proof of ancestral psychedelic use in the West may have been destroyed during the relentless attacks on folk knowledge and pagan culture. But evidence-based scholars are not convinced by the highly debatable claims and have sought to debunk what they consider counter cultural myths.
“There was a finding in a cave in Bolivia in 2019 where they discovered a 1,000 year-old pouch made of stitched together fox snouts containing traces of Ayahuasca, DMT plants and snorting paraphernalia,” Andy Letcher, a senior lecturer at Schumacher College and author of 2006 book Shroom: the Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom, tells me. “Here you have clear evidence for intentional usage, and we just lack that for psychedelics, including magic mushrooms, in Europe.”
In the book, he seeks to admonish what he considers mere hypotheses disseminated by high-profile figures who have even gone so far to claim that ancient cultures may have revered mushroom gods or that consumption of psychedelic fungi by foraging great apes could explain the mysterious tripling of the size of the human brain over the course of homo sapiens’ evolution during the development of consciousness – a theory McKenna put forward in Food of the Gods. “We really do not know, one way or the other, whether the ancients worshipped the holy spores of God,” writes Letcher in his book.
Isolated incidents of accidental magic mushroom consumption in Western Europe were documented by flabbergasted mycologists in the 1800s, warning fellow wild fungi enthusiasts to be careful after their frightening yet curious experiences. But given the inherent desire of humans to alter their states of mind with intoxicating and psychoactive plants, some suggest the knowledge of hallucinogen usage, including magic mushrooms, was somehow lost.
“I find it hard to believe that there is no history of ancient human magic mushroom consumption,” says biologist Merlin Sheldrake, the author of Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures. He is among the experts who state that it is impossible that hunter gatherers would not have learned about hallucinogenic plants, given their extensive environmental knowledge and the evidence hinting at possible psilocybin use among early Neolithic farming and herding communities.
“Over the course of our long prehistory, humans must have encountered these mushrooms, whether or not these encounters evolved into full blown cultural traditions,” he adds.
Mushrooms containing psilocybin are found across most ecological zones on all continents aside from Antarctica. Academics are working to provide the best estimate yet for when the first psilocybin mushrooms emerged. Unpublished research set to come out of Ohio State University and the University of Utah’s biology department may provide evidence suggesting they go back 75 million years ago – making them far older than homo sapiens, Sheldrake adds.
“These estimates make it unlikely psilocybin mushrooms arose to influence humans,” he says. “It seems more probable, given all the evidence, that psilocybin-producing mushrooms started to produce psilocybin to influence the nervous systems of other animals. Humans stepped into that story at a much later stage, but a lot of what is going on right now remains a kind of remembering as much as a discovery.”
Still, it remains somewhat implausible that all evidence of purported mushroom-consuming cultures was destroyed; even if the Inquisition and witch hunts in Europe were systematic and may have collectively killed almost one million people for allegedly disdaining conventional Christianity. British and Irish druids, who, in any case, did not keep written histories, may have also been forced to hide their magic mushroom use after their practices were declared illegal by the Romans, who massacred them before their culture was largely overwhelmed by Christianity. However, writes Letcher of Europe, “there is not a single instance of a magic mushroom being preserved in the archaeological record anywhere”.
Still, he acknowledges, “Iron Age Druids might have known about and used magic mushrooms, even if there’s no way of testing it”. The psychedelic compounds within mushrooms also have a rapid degradation rate irrespective of storage conditions, which makes it less likely that traces would be found by archaeologists when compared with many other plants and substances. "Both mushrooms and their alkaloids are not stable and are likely to disappear from archeological sites," says Dennis McKenna, Terrence’s ethnopharmacologist brother and co-author of the highly influential 1976 manual Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide: A Handbook for Psilocybin Enthusiasts.
Regardless, in the 50s, few people – if any – were consuming psilocybin in the West. That is until Wasson, who had been searching for the mysterious teonanácatl chronicled in obscure texts as the “flesh of the gods”, visited Sabina.
Wasson's report inadvertently caused a tourist frenzy. The town was credited as having launched a million trips. The accompanying swift changes and influx of visitors caused ructions in the community, and Sabina suffered. Part of her property was set on fire, her son was murdered and she was briefly jailed, accused of selling drugs. Authorities responded in 1968 by deploying the military to prevent foreigners from reaching the town for almost a decade, before her death at the age of 91 in 1985, after local society had stabilised.
Donaldo tells me that the Mazatec community have long used psychedelic fungi for connection with the divine and to cure spiritual and emotional blockages which manifest as tensions believed to be the root of physical ailments. Today, there are a couple of dozen mushroom healers in Huautla – and Sabina’s home survives as a shrine to the famed chjoón chjine (“wise woman”). Hundreds of mostly Mexican tourists come to Huautla, a state-approved pueblo mágico, every week. Some visit the museum after sacred pilgrimages up a hill overlooking Sabina’s former abode. Ceremonies (known as kuá tí na kuáñ), in which the local fungi that grow abundantly during the rainy season are consumed, can help identify the causes of diseases, give hints on how they can be treated and clear tensions, our guide tells me as we stand next to a mural depicting ancestral local use of psychedelic mushrooms.
In the 1500s, Spanish missionaries who sought to Christianise Indigenous people across Latin America were horrified by the mushroom ceremonies. The rites sometimes included human sacrifice, according to Durán, and aside from this were somewhat similar in aspects to the Holy Communion. The clergy attempted to prevent the use of psilocybin mushrooms and destroy evidence of their history of use – which may go back 4,000 years in the region.
From 1968, as a draconian reaction to the anti-Vietnam war hippie movement and the “turn on, tune in, drop out” counterculture – fuelled by the awakening powers of psychedelics, then considered a threat to the US establishment – magic mushrooms were made illegal. “Psychedelics arrived like bombs into society,” says McKenna. “They are transformative and disruptive, but the authoritarian powers that be do not want to hear that their kids are going to take strange drugs and become alienated from them.”
But the recreational and spiritual use of magic mushrooms increased under the radar and in recent years has shed its politicised taboos. Justin Bieber was photographed this year wearing a shroomy pearl necklace. Harry Styles thinks they boosted his creativity. Jaden Smith has extolled how everything is beautiful on shrooms, and legitimate shops in Canada are now selling openly after police suggested they have got more important things to do than shut them down. Coldplay frontman Chris Martin has told of how the drug provided the “confirmation I needed about how I feel about the universe”.
Society’s embrace of magic mushrooms is giving rise to a wider understanding of fungal life. Award-winning gardener Joe Perkins says he had associated fungi with decay and disease – not something one wants in the garden – until he read Sheldrake’s book, which shows how mushrooms connect the plant world through an underground kingdom named the mycelium network. “Our relationship with fungi is changing, and I think it will be an irreversible change,” Perkins told the Observer. “You find yourself getting caught up in all the huge implications of it. It’s a totally separate kingdom to plants and animals, and it’s possibly the biggest kingdom about which we know very, very little.”
Today, magic mushrooms are also being popularised, cultivated and institutionalised on a likely unprecedented scale amid a billion-dollar shroom boom. Psilocybin is expected to get US regulatory approval for depression within 24 months amid growing evidence of its benefits for mental health and general wellbeing. Oregon will become the first US state to legally offer psilocybin therapy next year, while Jamaica, Holland and a number of other countries allow the staging of mushroom retreats. Despite the fanfare and optimism, there are concerns that mushroom ceremonies and therapies are inaccessible for working people given the monetary barriers, while the Mazatec people of Mexico receive scant financial recognition for their stewardship of the knowledge.
But since the fungi grows so widely, they will always be the people's psychedelic. “Mushrooms have great promise for healing, not only for individuals with mental health problems, but for people who are interested in exploring consciousness or becoming better people, and for societies and the world as a whole,” adds McKenna. “We need to get some of these into the heads of those who most need them – the people with the most power and influence.
“If they take them it could have a catalytic effect and snowball, with more and more people waking up. We are at a tipping point and there is no shortage of mushrooms.”
Back in Huautla, Donaldo leans against the wall opposite the museum after selling me a mushroom figurine. “The fungus opens your mind,” he tells me. “It awakens your third eye... People just need to have that respect and consume it within the proper process during a ceremony. Then, the mushroom can be our salvation.”