Does the ‘Stoned Ape’ Theory Explain Human Evolution?

Upside down Orangutan monkey ape
Photo by Getty Images

Ethnobotanist and psychedelics advocate, Terence McKenna, wrote a book called Food of the Gods, which is an exploration of humans’ symbiotic relationships with plants and chemicals—now and in pre-historic societies.

McKenna came up with an interesting, albeit controversial theory, which was this: what enabled Homo erectus (our ancestors from 1.8 million years ago) to evolve into Homo sapiens (us now) had to do with their encounters with magic mushrooms and psilocybin, the psychedelic compound within them.

McKenna called this the “Stoned Ape Hypothesis” and posited that psilocybin caused the primitive brain’s information-processing capabilities to rapidly reorganize, which in turn kick-started an evolution of awareness that led to the early art, language and technology found in Homo sapiens’ archeological records.

McKenna once said that as early humans we “ate our way to higher consciousness” by consuming these mushrooms, which, he hypothesized, grew out of animal manure. Psilocybin, he said, brought us “out of the animal mind and into the world of articulated speech and imagination.”

As human cultural evolution led to the domestication of wild cattle, humans began to spend more time around cattle, McKenna explained. And, because psilocybin mushrooms commonly grow in cow poop, “the human-mushroom interspecies codependency was enhanced and deepened. It was at this time that religious ritual, calendar making, and natural magic came into their own.”

Apparently McKenna, who died in 2000, is said to have done his share of eating his way to higher consciousness. He passionately believed in this hypothesis, although the scientific community was often skeptical.

However, at April’s Psychedelic Science 2017 Conference attended by researchers, therapists and artists who believe in the therapeutic potential of psychedelics, there was a renewed interest in the theory.

Dr. Paul Stamets, D.Sc. pointed out that 200,000 years ago there was a sudden doubling of the human brain, referring to the sudden growth in the size of our brain.

“From an evolutionary point of view, that’s an extraordinary expansion,” he said. “And there is no explanation for this sudden increase in the human brain.”

There are several ways to explain why human brains today are so large compared to those of our early human ancestors, according to Live Science, which says many think it has to do with social competition.

However, let’s go back to McKenna’s theory and its possible uses.

While it remains controversial, there is mounting academic agreement that MDMA-assisted psychotherapy is being successfully used to help heal the psychological and emotional damage caused by sexual assault, war, violent crime and other traumas.

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) has completed its first double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the therapeutic use of LSD in human beings since the early 1970s. The study found positive trends in the reduction of anxiety following two LSD-assisted psychotherapy sessions.

Much work is still needed in this area, but there’s little doubt that 2016 was quite a positive year for psychedelic research.

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