Before anthropology was a separate discipline, travelers, explorers, and scholars wrote accounts of how people lived in cultural settings different from their own. These chronicles became the first literature on intercultural variation, albeit often riddled with the writers' own prejudices and misinterpretations of what they had observed. Some of the early ethnographic writings contained descriptions of drug use.
Besides being the recognized father of the Western approach to recording and reporting history (reservations about method and accuracy notwithstanding, cf. Pritchett, 1993), Herodotus provided some accounts of how non-Greeks, or "barbarians," lived in their respective natural habitats. In the course of describing the Scythians in what could be termed an early ethnography, Herodotus mentions their use of "hemp," which was probably cannabis, including an account of his hosts' consumption of the plant, which, when burned, produced intoxicating smoke (Wheeler, 1854, p. 159).
Lack of botanical and pharmacological expertise characterizes many of the early explorers' descriptions of non-Western people using unfamiliar plants. Europeans first thought the tomato poisonous because of its apparent taxonomic relationship to poison ivy. Prejudice against the people being described is evident in the conquistadores' encounters with the Aztecs' consumption of peyote and psilocybin and the Incas' consumption of coca (Carter & Mamani, 1986; Furst, 1995). European men of the 16th century gave disparaging and lurid accounts of these practices, setting the stage for centuries of prejudice against those who continued them. Consumption of tobacco as observed by Columbus and his crewmen, on the other hand, contributed to the eventual establishment of a highly lucrative trade good.
As travelers' agendas evolved from conquest, subjugation, and profit to subtler ones of governance and academic understanding, descriptions of drug use and healing practices became more detailed, although not necessarily less ethnocentric. Sir Richard Burton (n.d.)
wrote in the 19th century on his travels in Africa and the Middle East, including medicinal and drug-using patterns in these places. Frazer (1915) commented on the origin of the concept of souls and the relationship of that concept to dreaming and mind-altered states. The rise of behavioral science brought decidedly less ethnocentric views of the variants of human behavior along with assiduous attention to detail.
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