Symposium “Plants in Health and Culture”

Papaver somniferum culture in prehistory and early history

C.C. Bakels


The opium poppy, Papaver somniferum L., has a number of uses, which are of economic importance. Its seeds are edible and provide a good-quality oil, its flowers have ornamental value in gardens and, last but not least, it is a source of drugs. While the opium poppy does not appear on the lists of most important crops in the world, it is a crop of long standing and occurs in a large number of varieties. The collection of the German genebanks, for instance, includes over 300 landraces and advanced cultivars. Where and when did the first opium poppy appear?

The origin must be sought in the area of distribution of the wild progenitor. There has been some discussion about this plant, but most researchers accept Papaver setigerum DC as the progenitor. The two poppies are so very alike that Papaver setigerum DC is now commonly given as Papaver somniferum ssp. setigerum or even Papaver somniferum var. setigerum. The plant has rather weedy tendencies and easily escapes cultivation. Its true primary distribution is therefore difficult to establish, but its nuclear area is commonly held to lie in the western Mediterranean: Italy, northern Africa, eastern Spain, the Mediterranean coast of France and the islands in between. Somewhere there man must have started to use this plant. Its subsequent (pre)history is a subject of archaeological investigations and the study of ancient writings.

In archaeological contexts the opium poppy appears as plant remains, chemical residues in pottery, and in pictures. The plant turns up regularly in the first farming communities of western Central Europe. The oldest finds concern seeds, preserved by charring or waterlogging, and pollen. These finds come from excavations in the German Rhineland and the south-eastern part of the Netherlands, and are dated to 5300 BC (calibrated radiocarbon dates). This is of course far from the original area of distribution, but through which cultural links the crop arrived there is still a riddle. The well-known finds in the Alps and surroundings are younger, but recently an older find appeared in Italy. Further research may solve the riddle. The opium poppy spread from western Europe to the rest of Europe, the Near East and Egypt, Asia and further afield.

Early finds concern mostly seeds. The capsules, which provide the latex and are the main source of the psychoactive substances, have a much smaller chance of preservation. It is, therefore, not clear when the use of opium poppy as a source of drugs started. An unusual vessel found in one of the oldest farming communities in western Central Europe suggests that already then the plant was not only grown for food. But the first evidence stems from a Sumerian clay tablet found in Iraq. The text dates from the end of the third millennium BC and describes the incision of the capsules, at least, if the interpretation is correct, which is subject to doubt. From 1600 BC onwards societies in the eastern Mediterranean and the Near East left so many traces of opium poppy in both objects and writing that its medicinal and ceremonial use must have been common practice. How the domesticated plant found its way from the western Mediterranean to the east remains to be solved.