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How did the human brain triple in size in just two million years?
According to the “Stoned Ape Theory” developed by Terrence McKenna and his brother Dennis McKenna, a community of proto-humans might have consumed the magic mushrooms they found in the wild. That act could have profoundly changed their brains.
“It was like a software to program this neurologically modern hardware,” explained Dennis McKenna in this clip from Fantastic Fungi.
“It’s not so simple to say that they ate psilocybin mushrooms and suddenly the brain mutated, I think it’s more complex than that, but I think it was a factor. It was like a software to program this neurologically modern hardware to think, to have cognition, to have language—because language is essentially synesthesia. Language is the association with apparently meaningless sound except that it’s associated with the complex of meaning.” -Dennis McKenna
The Stoned Ape theory starts with our ancestors, the great apes who left the forests, traveling across the savannahs on two feet.
You can learn more when you watch Fantastic Fungi.
However, as these ancient relatives of human beings began their journeys, their food choices expanded as they hunted animals and foraged in new environments.
Research has found that 23 different primates—including humans—added mushrooms in their diets over centuries of evolution.
Charles Grob, a professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, reminds us that many indigenous cultures have a rich history with plant medicine.
Basically, this could reinforce the possibility that our prehistoric ancestors began this experience.
“Human existence on this Earth goes back an extraordinarily long period of time, most of which we have no identifiable information. It’s entirely plausible, given that, that the indigenous people all around the world know intimately all the plant life, and will know the different combinations of plant life, that our prehistoric ancestors, they had come across the plants that do alter consciousness.”
Here’s how Inverse framed the basics of the Stoned Ape Theory in their deep dive on the subject:
“McKenna posited that psilocybin caused the primitive brain’s information-processing capabilities to rapidly reorganize, which in turn kick-started the rapid evolution of cognition that led to the early art, language, and technology written in Homo sapiens’ archeological record. As early humans, he said 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 a lot more time around cattle dung, McKenna explained. And, because psilocybin mushrooms commonly grow in cow droppings, ‘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.’”
Terrence McKenna and his brother Dennis McKenna developed this theory in the 1970s, and it has spawned some amazing art.
The great comedian Bill Hicks did an unforgettable riff on the Stoned Ape during his Revelations tour, telling audiences:
“I believe that God left certain drugs growing naturally upon our planet to help speed up and facilitate our evolution.”
Although The Stoned Ape theory is a compelling one and helps us to understand more about our origins as a species (we know for a fact, for example, that humans have long used psychedelic mushrooms in religious rituals and rites), we may not have the technology to prove or disprove it conclusively yet.
For his part, author Michael Pollan is a skeptic of the theory. He recently appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience to discuss his new book on psychedelics, How To Change Your Mind, and expressed his doubts about the theory.
Finally, mycologist Paul Stamets touched on what he calls the “Stoned Ape Hypothesis” in Fantastic Fungi. In the film, he outlined the impact magic mushrooms could have provided our ancestors’ brain development.
“These magic mushrooms open up the amount of information you receive. Basically, you can think of it as a contact fluid between synapsis in the brain. Wow, what a competitive advantage. Especially if you’re working with the geometry of weapons or having to put something together that will give you a better chance of survival.”
Stamets outlined the hypothesis for this hilarious animated video from After Skool.