Archaeological evidence from the Sahara desert suggests that humans have been using psychedelic mushrooms for 7,000 years or more. Mushrooms are represented in prehistoric art across many different geographic regions. In most cases, they’re thought to be religiously symbolic, often in the context of rights of passage ceremonies. If our ancestors did use mushrooms, such a powerful experience almost certainly would have influenced prehistoric culture, from art to religion to social values that regulated everyday life.
Extensive accounts of psilocybin use in pre-Columbian history comes from the Mayan and Aztec cultures of Mesoamerica, namely in Mexico and Guatemala. After conquering these areas in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Spanish forbade psychedelic mushroom use by indigenous peoples, regarding it as a savage and uncivilized cultural practice. Despite this, the indigenous shamans ignored Spanish law in secret for over 400 years to preserve their shared cultural heritage with these mushrooms.
The first reliable account in the West of “intoxication” with psilocybin mushrooms came in 1799 when four children were accidentally fed Psilocybe semilanceata, a species of psychedelic mushroom.
The famous Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann (who synthesised LSD) first isolated psilocybin in the lab in 1957 from Psilocybe mexicana, a species of mushroom found primarily in Central America. A year later, it was produced synthetically for the first time.
Gordon Wasson, former vice president of J.P. Morgan & Company, apparently had a fascination with psilocybin mushrooms that became an obsession. In 1955 he traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, to meet mushroom shaman Maria Sabina, a member of the indigenous Mazatec Indian tribe, who introduced him to psilocybin mushrooms. On his first mushroom trip, he reported feeling as if his soul had been scooped out of his body.
Wasson effectively kickstarted the psychedelic mushroom movement in the West when, in 1957, Time Magazine published his photo essay, “Seeking the Magic Mushroom,” in which he detailed his experiences.
After reading of Wasson’s experiences and then traveling to Oaxaca to experience psilocybin mushrooms for themselves, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, researchers at Harvard University, founded the Harvard Psilocybin Project which, of course, got them fired shortly thereafter. So they did what any jobless, charismatic academics would have done in 1962: they started a psychedelic movement. Psilocybin mushrooms were quickly adopted into the 1960s counterculture.