Today we know more than we ever did about human evolution. That we are distantly related to fungi, that early mammals survived while the dinosaurs perished, and— thanks to Darwin, our monkey Uncles. However, how early humans developed consciousness remains shrouded in mystery. There are of course, many theories. One that has been recently revisited is Terence Mckenna’s ‘Stoned Ape Theory’.
Once relegated to the depths of psychonaut Reddit forums, this theory has been spotlighted again due to its inclusion in a lecture by renowned mycologist Paul Stamets in 2017. Part of this lecture can be seen in the recent award winning film ‘Fantastic Fungi’ (check it out!). I can tell you’re already intrigued— there are not many theories with a name as tantalising as ‘Stoned Ape’. So, to satisfy your curiosity, here is a pocket sized summary of McKenna’s often mocked, but always compelling theory. Here is everything you need to know about ‘Stoned Ape Theory’!
Who was Terence McKenna?
Terence McKenna (1946- 2000), was an American ethnobotanist, author, lecturer and psychedelics advocate. In 1992 he published a book called ‘Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge— A Radical History of Plants, Drugs and Human Evolution’. Hailed as a ‘modern classic on mind-altering drugs and hallucinogens’ (Washington Post) it contained the radical ‘Stoned Ape Theory’.
What is ‘Stoned Ape Theory?‘
Firstly, for all you sticklers for accuracy, the ‘Stoned Ape Theory’ is not technically a theory. A theory is a hypothesis (a proposed explanation or idea) that is backed up by proven evidence. As there is currently no concrete factual evidence for this idea, it remains a hypothesis. So! The ‘Stoned Ape Hypothesis’. What is it?!
It is thought that between 2 million and 700,000 years ago Homo erectus brains doubled in size. Their descendants, Homo sapiens (that’s us!) brains proceeded to triple in size somewhere between 100,000 and 500,000 years ago. There is, currently, no agreed upon theory for such a dramatic evolutionary development.
Enter the Mushroom…
McKenna proposed that these massive accelerations were due to an unexpected source— magic mushrooms.
Imagine the scenario: early human has descended from the trees. Leaving the leafy canopy behind they begin, in groups, to track and domesticate herds of animals. In the manure left by the animals, mushrooms begin to grow. Specifically psilocybin, or magic mushrooms. Munching together, on the shrooms, they begin to feel the psychedelic effects. The psilocybin in the mushrooms, behaves exactly as it does today, opening the minds of its consumers. This process kicked into overdrive the ability to process information, imagine and think abstractly.
As McKenna put it, ‘Homo sapiens ate our way to a higher consciousness’.
The Birth of Language
Even the development of language can be linked with the hypothesis. Psilocybin can induce a brain state similar to synesthesia— where different senses, such as vision and sound, get paired together. This could explain how humans were able to begin to create association with the things they saw and the noises that they made with their mouths— thus language was born.
Strengthening of Community
Feelings of interconnectedness and empathy that shrooms encourage, would have strengthened community— which is one of the secrets to humanity’s success. In fact, McKenna also maintained that increased sexual arousal due to ingestion of shrooms (this has not been proven) would have further benefited the growth of population. Additionally, early religious and ceremonial ritual may have been based upon the psychedelic experiences induced by the magic mushrooms.
The Psychedelic Relationship Continues
Today, McKenna’s hypothesis has been widely debunked as being too simplistic an explanation for the mystery of human consciousness. Despite this, it remains a compelling argument to consider in relation to a question that may never get a definite answer. Meanwhile, McKenna should remain lauded for recognising what science is only beginning to take seriously now— that psilocybin is a revolutionary tool for brain wellness. With more and more promising results from psychedelic studies, even if shrooms didn’t create human consciousness, in the near future they could play a big part in improving it.
So now you have everything you need to know about ‘Stoned Ape Theory!’