The idea, known as the “Stoned Ape” theory of human evolution, came to prominence in the 1990s. The term was coined by American scientists and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna in his 1992 book ‘Food of the Gods’, where he proposed that climate change in Africa hundreds of thousands of years ago resulted in humans consuming Psilocybe cubensis, more commonly known as magic mushrooms.
Desertification of the African continent forced early primates to venture into the shrinking tropical canopy in search of food.
In doing this – mainly tracking animals – the theory says primates would have come across animal dung, the perfect growing grounds for fungi.
Hungry, hominids ate the psychedelic mushrooms which sparked neurogenesis (neuron growth) and myriad other developed traits present in modern humans.
Paul Stamets, a mycologist and enthusiast of the theory, explained the extent to which the theory might be proven during the PowerfulJRE podcast in 2017.
The ancient humans may have consumed mushrooms which helped their brains develop
Psychedelic mushrooms have been used by humans for hundreds of years
He said: “The most significant fleshy mushroom growing out of poop in Africa of the hippopotamus, elephant, deer, antelope, is Psilocybe cubensis, a very large mushroom, you’re hungry, you’re with your clan, and 20 minutes later you’re catapulted into this extraordinary experience.
“Psilocybin substitutes serotonin – it becomes a better neurotransmitter, it causes new neurons to form, and new pathways of knowledge.
“It speaks to a mystery that the human brain cavity doubled in size in about two million years.
“We have a sudden doubling of the human brain and with that our language centres increased our ability to prognosticate, to plan.
Psychedelic mushrooms have been proven to cause neurogenesis
“There’s no explanation for this currently.”
The onset of complex formations of the brain and body, such as improved attention, genetic diversity and community were assisted by Psilocybe cubensis in the diet.
Primates who consumed larger amounts of the mushroom would have triggered their “language forming region of the brain”, Mr McKenna claimed, which manifested as music and visions, making way for the early use of language.
Millions of years ago, Homo erectus spread throughout the world.
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The theory suggests climate change forced primates into the shrinking tropical forest
The African savannah has since become barren of life
One population of Homo erectus remained in Africa and evolved into Homo sapiens – the only surviving human species.
Mr Stamets proposed how this remaining population could have had their world dramatically changed through the new experiences offered by the fungi.
He said: “Even though we may not be able to prove it, I ask people to suspend their disbelief for a second.
“Now think of this: Our primate ancestors are going across the savannah, they ingest these mushrooms as a clan.
Neanderthals lived hundreds of thousands of years ago
“Massive input for anyone that’s eaten these mushrooms, huge amounts of data coming in with different patterns and changing landscapes.
“You have greater empathy, greater courage, you’re fighting a saber toothed tiger, we know now from neurogenesis and the extinction of the far response it’s been clinically proven, psilocybin allows you to rewire that and have different neurological pathways to respond to fear, like PTSD.
“But this wouldn’t happen one time with one hominid group, it wouldn’t happen one times, two times, it would happen millions and millions of times over millions and millions of years.
“This leads to what I think should be called epigenetic neurogenesis.
The theory has gone largely ignored by the scientific community for its lack of evidence
“If you’re the leader of this clan and have had a traumatic event like war or experienced an earthquake, you can overcome your fear responses, you have courage and empathy – those are leadership skills, I think people would have taken note of it.”
Mr McKenna’s theory has not received attention from the scientific community for several reasons, the main being that his arguments are not bound in paleoanthropological evidence that form our understanding of early humans.
Much of his work, based on the studies conducted by Roland Fischer in the 1960s and 1970s, has also been accused of misrepresenting Mr Fischer’s conclusions about Psilocybe cubensis.