The stoned ape theory: A higher primate

The Stoned Ape theory polarizes opinion, its creator baffling yet inspiring in equal measure.

The beginning

Terence McKenna was a promoter of the proper use of psychedelic drugs and plants, speaking and writing about the subject extensively throughout his 53 year long life. McKenna spoke of various theories and possibilities however it was psychedelics that he was most passionate about and it was psychedelics that stuck by his name. Much beneficial research was carried out under McKenna’s tutelage but his relationship with drugs and popular culture saw him cast in bad light, shunned by the scientific community for his difference and, perhaps, indifference.

Terence McKenna and his brother Dennis were keen supporters of psychedelics and were eager to not just state their worth but also to prove it. In the early 1970s they embarked on an expedition to the Amazon to gather research surrounding the psychedelic experience in the home of both nature and ayahuasca. In 1976 the two brothers published their findings under the pseudonyms O. T. Oss and O. N. Oeric. The book, Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guidewas the first of it’s kind that allowed the everyday man to cultivate and utilise mushrooms to their full extent and exposure direct from their homes.

A decade later, with more research under their belts, a revised edition was published which the world lapped up. The second edition has sold over 100,000 copies and McKenna, in the revised preface, states that “Once one has actually grown the mushroom, it becomes obvious that the mushroom uses the same strategy whether it is enveloping a petri dish or a society. A tiny part breaks away from the main body, it becomes a new centre of radiative growth that expands until it reaches a critical limit, then it too spawns break-away particles with a life of their own.” This is exactly what occured with Terence McKenna and the stoned ape theory which still lives on to this day.

Dennis McKenna, left, and Terence McKenna, right

Before the 1986 book was published, McKenna had forged a path of promoting via public talks and lectures focused on psychedelics and psilocybin mushrooms. In 1985 he also set up, along with his then-wife Kathleen Harrison, Botanical Dimensions. The organisation, still run by Kathleen, was set up to “collect, protect, propagate, understand” plants and the folklores surrounding them, potential medicinal benefits, and effects on civilization. Botanical Dimensions, based in California, has a huge garden with vast arrays of plants important to indigenous people mostly from South America and a comprehensive database surrounding these plants, all put together by Kathleen Harrison.

McKenna’s relationship with psychedelic promoting stemmed from his belief in the intelligence and wisdom of plants. According to McKenna, “intelligence, not life, but intelligence may have come here [to Earth] in this spore-bearing life form”, the ethnobotanist also suggested that plants and beings such as the psilocybin mushroom acted as a communication tool between living beings and the planet itself, “the planet has a kind of intelligence, it can actually open a channel of communication with an individual human being.” McKenna was a pragmatic psychedelic promoter advocating the controlled use of shamanistic substances, “I think drugs should come from the natural world and be use-tested by shamanically orientated cultures. One cannot predict the long-term effects of a drug produced in a laboratory.”

The theory

In the early 1990s McKenna became enamored with the rave scene and it become enamored with him, McKenna seen by many as the “intellectual voice of rave culture.” Involved in countless raves and contributing to various trance albums, an air of naivety had joined McKenna on his journey, these developments taking over from his intelligent musings and creative hypotheses. This part of his life plays a role in why his now infamous 1992 published book Food Of The Gods was widely ignored by those in scientific communities. In said book, the stoned ape theory was born.

The cover of Food of the Gods first published in 1992

The stoned ape theory or hypothesis can be summed up in one simple phrase by Terence McKenna who says that we “are our way to higher conciousness”, psilocybin and psychedelics taking hominids “out of the animal mind and into the world of articulated speech and imagination” – psilocybin acting as an “evolutionary catalyst.” In a section titled A new view of human evolution McKenna sets the premise for his hypothesis: “the first encounters between hominids and psilocybin-containing mushrooms may have predated the domestication of cattle in Africa by a million years or more. And during this million year period, the mushrooms were not only gathered and eaten by probably also achieved the status of a cult. But domestication of wild cattle, a great step in human cultural evolution, by bringing humans into greater proximity to cattle, also entailed increased contact with the mushrooms, because these mushrooms grow only in the dung of cattle. As a result, 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.”

In simple terms the stoned ape theory can be split into separate segments. Early hominid species in African terrain resided in forested areas. Due to a change in the climate their canopy lifestyles were interrupted with desertification in full effect. A new environment and new lifestyle meant new sources of food were needed and readily available. As McKenna stated above, hominids followed cattle in the process of hunting and inevitably came across cattle excrement. Insects were picked out of the excrement and consumed but the reason we are interested in this is because psilocybin mushrooms grew out of said natural waste and were sitting ducks to be consumed by humans.

As hominid species began to consume psilocybin mushrooms in small doses their survival rates grew as eyesight and senses improved enabling easier hunting. As years went by the advantages of psilocybin mushrooms became more and more apparent thus doses were increased. With the now constant consumption, hominids saw sexual activity rise which in turn created larger communities and further diversity. Males in these communities did not know which offspring was theirs so looked after everyone equally, a trait still seen in many indigenous cultures. The final step of the process was the effect on the brain, enlarging the organ and allowing for the start of languages, religion, and expressive capabilities such as art and dance.

Natural Psilocybe cyanescens


Richard Evans Schultes, a biologist once at Harvard University, supported McKenna in 1993 in an article published in American Scientist claiming that Food Of The Gods is, “a masterpiece of research and writing, [it] should be read by every specialist working in the multifarious fields involved with the use of psychoactive drugs. It is, without question, destined to play a major role in our future considerations of the role of the ancient use of psychoactive drugs, the historical shaping of our modern concerns about drugs and perhaps about mans desire for escape from reality with drugs.” In 1992, when McKenna’s book was published, Schultes was awarded the gold medal from the Linnean society of London, thought to be the ‘most prestigious prize in botany’.

Paul Ratner of Big Think sums up the feeling towards the theorem superbly, saying that “many scientists have dismissed his ideas as “a story” rather than an explanation based on proven facts.” But evidence is now being discovered that supports McKenna’s claims. In 2010 the remains of a woman were found in the El Miron cave based near the coastline of Bilbao, Northern Spain. Anthropologists have since identified the burial as taking place around 18,700 years ago and have nicknamed the women “the red lady” after her remains were stained red. Confusion about the burial and her significance is rife but in 2015 she became entwined with the psychedelic community. Five years after her discovery a paper was published titled Microremains from El Miron cave human dental calculus suggest a mixed plant animal subsistence economy during the Magdalenian in Northern Iberiawritten by Robert C. Power, Domingo C. Salazar-Garcia, and Amanda G. Henry of the Max Planck institute for evolutionary anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and by Lawrence G. Straus, and Manuel R. Gonzalez of the University of Cantabria in Santander, Spain.

The abstract of the paper reads as following: “Despite more than a century of detailed investigation of the Magdalenian period in Northern Iberia, our understanding of the diets during this period is limited. Methodologies for the reconstruction of Late Glacial subsistence strategies have overwhelmingly targeted animal exploitation, thus revealing only a portion of the dietary spectrum. Retrieving food debris from calculus offers a means to provide missing information on other components of diet. We undertook analysis of human dental calculus samples from Magdalenian individuals (including the “Red Lady”) at El Miron Cave (Cantabria, Spain), as well as several control samples, to better understand the less visible dietary components. Dental calculus yielded a diverse assemblage of microremains from plant, fungal, animal and mineral sources that may provide data on diet and environment. The types of microremains show that the individuals at El Miron consumed a variety of plants, including seeds and underground storage organs, as well as other foods, including possibly bolete mushrooms. These findings suggest that plant and plant-like foods were parts of her diet, supplementing staples derived from animal foods. As faunal evidence suggests that the Magdalenian Cantabrian diet included a large proportion of animal foods, we argue here for a mixed subsistence pattern.” The study results suggested that, according to Robert Power, “this finding at El Miron cave could be the earliest indication of human mushroom use or consumption.”

The burial site of the Red Lady in El Miron cave

Also in 2015, Elis Guerra-Doce, of the University of Valladolid, published a scientific journal entitled Psychoactive substances in Prehistoric times: Examining the archaeological evidence in which she set out “to provide a comprehensive overview of the consumption of drug plants and fermented beverages in prehistoric times by drawing upon some archaeological examples world wide that illustrate the early use of these substances.”

Research from this report include evidence that people chewed betel leaves from around 2500 BC which contained ‘euphoric-inducing properties’. The remains of reddish teeth were found by researchers in the Duyong cave in the Philippines as well as in Nui Nap in Vietnam. The reddish stains, similar to those of the red lady, are thought to be caused by the betel plant or nut which was consumed mainly in Asian communities. Evidence of opium cultivation was uncovered near Rome dating back to around 6000 BC and traces of opium found on the teeth of remains from Granada dating back to around 4000 BC. There are various other examples that can be seen such as cannabis seed remains found in Romanian Bronze-age bowls.

Recent drug testing has shown that psychedelics help in cases of depression or PTSD. Researchers also say that consuming psilocybin has profound effects on your brain and complete way of thought. Allowing people to feel more emotionally coordinated and connected to themselves and the world they inhabit. The ‘loss of ego’ and stabilisation of emotion leads to a calmer existence where one feels more associated with events happening naturally around them, increasing focus and understanding.

Amanda Feilding, founder of the Beckley Foundation which see it’s purpose “to pioneer psychedelic research and drive evidence-based drug policy reform”, backs up McKenna saying that, “The imagery that comes with the psychedelic experience is a theme that runs through ancient art, so I’m sure that psychedelic experience and other techniques, like dancing and music, were used by our early ancestors to enhance conciousness, which then facilitated spirituality, art, and medicine.”

Further support for McKenna’s hypothesis arrived in 2017 at a public talk by Paul Stamets. Paul Stamets is a supporter of medicinal fungi and researcher of fungi and can be found at Fungi Perfecti. Stamets stood in front of the crowd and said, “What is really important for you to understand it that there was a sudden doubling of the human brain 200,000 years ago. From an evolutionary point of view, that’s an extraordinary expansion. And there is no explanation for this sudden increase in the human brain. I suggest to you that Dennis and Terence were right on. I want you or anyone, listening, or seeing this, to suspend your disbelief… I think this is a very, very plausible hypothesis for the sudden evolution of Homo Sapiens from our primate relatives.”

Paul Stamets. Source: MyBigPlunge


Despite strong support, those mentioned above also doubt. Paul Stamets has previously stated that the stoned ape theory is not supported by proven facts whilst the aforementioned Professor Guerra-Doce has said, “Human evolution is a tremendously intricate process in which several factors have played their part. From my point of view, McKenna’s hypothesis is too simplistic and lacks direct evidence to support it – that is, any evidence of consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms by the earliest Homo Sapiens.”

Many agree that the hypothesis is too simple, too concise to explain such generational complexities. Martin Lockley, a respected palaeontologist, expresses his thoughts that believing in McKenna’s hypothesis means believing in a singular cause for conciousness. Scientists, however, do not know about the creation of conciousness thus the theory is impossible to disprove at current time.

Michael Graziano, a professor at Princeton University, believes a small segment of the hypothesis in that human conciousness is linked to the beginning and creation of communities. Marc Srour, an entomologist, also believes part of the theory, “that doing mushrooms is something that will change you as a person – you will not look at life the same way after having your first trip, whether it was good or bad. This is why their use is so wide spread in so many shamanistic cultures. But, well, you can’t extrapolate from this effect on individual psyche to a societal change.”

McKenna’s referral to a study by R. Fischer and R. M. Hill is important to the theory as McKenna claims the pair found evidence that low psilocybin doses improve eyesight, sharpness, and focus. McKenna stated that this would give hominid species a hunting advantage however Fischer and Hill were testing medium doses and published in a further paper that the consumption of psilocybin “may not be conducive to the survival of the organism.” McKenna’s simplified statement that psilocybin consumption created communities is pulled apart by some who use the example of the Aztecs and other tribal civilizations that use psychedelic plants but also carry out supremely violent acts such as torture and human sacrifice.

Whilst some scientifically and culturally seek to disprove the stoned ape theory, others naively attack McKenna for his use of drugs and promotion of safe use. Judy Corman, Vice President of a New York drug treatment centre, wrote to the New York Times in 1993 voicing her opininon, “surely the fact that Terence McKenna says that the psilocybin mushroom ‘is the megaphone used by an alien, intergalactic other to communicate with mankind’ is enough for us to wonder if taking LSD has done something to his mental faculties.” McKenna said a lot of things including that the stoned ape theory was “conciously propaganda” so his words should be read into, not taken for what they seem to be.

Terence McKenna once exclaimed that the internet is “the birth of [the] global mind”, a medium I am currently using to spread his ideology to those who have not yet heard it or wanted to learn more.

Terence McKenna depicted by an unknown artist

Further information and links

Check out The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss written by Dennis McKenna that “reveals the story of the McKenna brothers’ eye-opening expedition to the Amazon in 1971 for psychedelic research”. Also below you can watch Terence McKenna speak publicly about the stoned ape theory and more:
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