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7 mind-bending facts about magic mushrooms

From ancient shamans (and Santa Claus?) to scientists studying mental health, humans have a long fascination with ‘magic’ fungi.

by Russell McLendon
December 18, 2017

Fungi have flourished on Earth for quite a while, possibly more than 2 billion years. They’ve evolved some impressive tricks during that time, including many that are either fascinating or frightening to humans — and sometimes a bit of both.

Some ancient fungi grew nearly 30 feet tall before trees existed, for example, and today a 400-acre fungus in Oregon may be the largest organism on the planet. Certain fungi can glow in the dark, and a few turn insects into zombies. Some species are lethal to humans, while others provide us with valuable superfoods.

And then there are magic mushrooms, also known as “shrooms.” These fungi are famed for their psychedelic effects on people who ingest them, an ancient practice dating back to prehistoric “mushroom cults” and shamans who may have inspired Santa Claus. Yet even after centuries of experience, we are only now demystifying many of the magical — and medicinal — powers these mushrooms possess.

This article is not meant to advocate casual use of magic mushrooms, which are potentially dangerous and widely illegal. Even when they provide the health benefits described below, they’re typically used in a controlled clinical setting, often with counseling or other guidance from medical professionals. That said, however, they are also natural wonders of our planet that we would be foolish to ignore.

So, for a closer look at these mystical members of Mother Nature’s medicine cabinet, here are a few interesting facts you may not know about magic mushrooms:

There are two basic types, but about 200 different species.

Psychedelic fungi fall into two general categories, each characterized by a distinct mix of mind-altering ingredients that make their mushrooms “magic.”

The largest, most common group produces hallucinogens called psilocybin and psilocin, and features more than 180 species from every continent except Antarctica. These diverse fungi hail from roughly a dozen genera, but are often lumped together as “psilocybin mushrooms.” Most belong to the genus Psilocybe, including well-known species like P. cubensis (“gold top”) and P. semilanceata (“liberty cap”).

The other group is smaller, but has a rich history of religious use. It consists of one iconic species — Amanita muscaria (“fly agaric”) — plus a few less famous relatives like A. pantherina (“panther cap”). Instead of psilocybin or psilocin, its main hallucinogens are chemicals known as muscimol and ibotenic acid.

Amanita muscaria, or fly agaric mushroomAn Amanita muscaria mushroom grows in a forest near Rieder, Germany. (Photo: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand/AFP/Getty Images)

These “muscimol mushrooms” are related to some notoriously toxic fungi, namely Amanita phalloides (“death cap”) and A. ocreata (“destroying angel”). They’re generally less poisonous than those killer cousins, but given the high stakes of a mushroom mix-up, non-experts are advised to steer clear of Amanita altogether.

“This is serious stuff, folks,” warns food writer and forager Hank Shaw. “Mistake this mushroom for another amanita and you can die.” (For more about fungus-foraging safety, check out this intro to mushroom identification by MNN’s Tom Oder.)

Magic mushrooms may have given us Santa Claus.

The story of Santa Claus is pretty odd when you think about it, from magic elves and flying reindeer to Santa’s chimney use and his iconic red-and-white suit. According to one theory, many of these quirks come from muscimol mushrooms — or, more specifically, from Siberian shamans who distributed them centuries ago.

A. muscaria has long been valued in Siberia, where human consumption dates back to at least the 1600s. While some of that was likely recreational, Siberian shamans ingested the fungi “to commune with the spirit world,” as anthropologist John Rush told LiveScience in 2013. The shamans also gave out shrooms as gifts in late December, he noted, often entering homes via the roof due to deep snow.

“[T]hese practicing shamans or priests connected to the older traditions would collect Amanita muscaria, dry them and then give them as gifts on the winter solstice,” Rush explained. “Because snow is usually blocking doors, there was an opening in the roof through which people entered and exited, thus the chimney story.”

Those shamans also had a tradition of dressing up like A. muscaria, Rush added, wearing red suits with white spots. Their vision quests could be shared with spirit animals like reindeer, LiveScience points out, which live in Siberia and are known to eat hallucinogenic fungi. And there are other links, too, like Santa’s Arctic home or his placement of gifts under trees (akin to how A. muscaria grows at the base of pines). Yet the Santa story is a blend of many influences over centuries, and mushrooms are only a speculative — albeit intriguing — source of Santa’s magic.

Humans and magic mushrooms go back millennia.

Maya mushroom stones of Guatemala Examples of Maya ‘mushroom stone’ statues from Guatemala. (Photo: NIDA/Wikimedia Commons)

 

No one knows exactly when humanity discovered magic mushrooms, but there is evidence to suggest they were used in religious rituals thousands of years ago. Psilocybin mushrooms were important to some Mesoamerican cultures at the time of Spanish conquest, for example, a tradition that was likely already ancient by then.

“[A] genuine mushroom cult in Mesoamerican cultures seems to have existed,” biologist Harri Nyberg wrote in a 1992 study, “and its beginnings can be traced to remote antiquity.” This is partly due to artwork like the “remarkable ‘mushroom stones’ of the ancient Mayas and mural frescoes found in central Mexico,” Nyberg noted, some of which date back more than 2,000 years. The hallucinogenic fungus Psilocybe mexicana, which is native to Central America, was previously known by the Aztec word teonanacatl — often translated as “divine mushroom.”

In the Sahara desert, rock art from 7,000 to 9,000 years ago may feature even earlier portrayals of psychedelic fungi. The scenes include human dancers holding mushroom-like objects, in some cases with two parallel lines connecting the objects to the dancers’ heads. This is not definitive evidence, but some researchers see it as the earliest hints of people using mind-altering mushrooms.

There’s also a fringe theory, the “stoned ape hypothesis,” that suggests magic mushrooms sparked the boom in brain size and culture of early humans. Many experts dismiss this idea as simplistic and speculative, noting its lack of evidence for tracing human consciousness so neatly back to a single catalyst. Yet the idea has also drawn more interest lately, and even some of its doubters see value in the way it highlighted psilocybin’s ability to alter consciousness and the brain itself.

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About Russell McLendon

Russell is science editor for Mother Nature Network. He writes MNN’s Translating Uncle Sam features, works on infographics and other special projects, and blogs for the Earth Matters channel.