A paleontologist’s 2015 discovery about dinosaurs in Myanmar has something remarkable in common with a 1976 postulation of the origin of witchcraft accusations in 1692 Massachusetts. The two are linked by the psychoactive fungus ergot, best known for its derivative hallucinogen lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD). This article examines this exceptionally curious, oddly specific connection between Jurassic Southeast Asia and 17th century colonial North America.
Ergot and Ergotism
Ergot (pronounced UR-guht, in case you were curious) is parasitic on forage grasses, corn, wheat, barley, oats, millet, sorghum, rice and – most commonly – rye. Its name derives from the French word for a rooster’s spur, argot, in reference to the fungus’s appearance when clinging to grass or grain. It wasn’t recognized scientifically as a fungus until 1764 though; before that, people regarded it as nothing but an enlarged kernel, referring to it as “super rye.”
When consumed through grass or grain products (e.g., bread), ergot’s poisonous effect on the body is called ergotism, of which there are two forms: Ergotismus convulsivus, which impairs neurotransmission; and Ergotismus gangraenosus, which impairs circulation. The two can occur simultaneously if the right alkaloids of the ergoline group are active at once. (For a vivid play-by-play description of what an ergotism onset is like, read Matthew Spellberg’s article “The Holy Fire and the Lonely Saint.”)
Ergotismus convulsivus causes rigid, extremely painful flexed limbs; muscle spasms; convulsions; delirium and hallucinations; and severe diarrhea. Ergotismus gangraenosus induces gangrene, causing swelling and intense burning in the hands, feet, arms and legs until these body parts have their blood supply cut off and rot. Blood can also be cut off to the brain, resulting in temporary or permanent insanity.
The Order of St. Anthony was the go-to monastic order for gangrene ergotism treatment in the Middle Ages. Consequently, that form of ergotism became known as “St. Anthony’s Fire,” with “fire” referring to the burning sensation. Some people in Western Europe also believed that St. Anthony could cure – or cause – gangrene ergotism. Attesting to this, two poignant Latin phrases were chiseled above places of worship: “Nemo impune peccat in Antonium” (“No one sins against Anthony with impunity”) and “Nemo invanum currit ad Antonium” (“No one runs to Anthony in vain”).
Suspected ergotism is what links primordial herbivores to 1600s faux sorceresses. Eons before LSD’s synthesis, certain dinosaurs were likely ingesting acid’s ancestral hallucinogen Palaeoclaviceps parasiticus (i.e., prehistoric ergot). And the Salem Witch Trials coincided with what was later recognized as a plausible outbreak of ergot-induced mass food poisoning whose trippy symptoms were mistaken for bewitching.
Dinosaurs and Acid’s Ancestor
A paleontological discovery in 2005 taught us that grass was part of sauropod dinosaurs’ diets 145 million to 200 million years ago. Ten years later, we learned what kind of grass they were eating and, somewhat more noteworthy, what was on that grass: a variant of the fungus from which LSD is derived. Upon hearing that, many people were charmed by the whimsical image of the largest land animal in history staggering around stoned, chomping on plants that aren’t there while hearing visions and seeing sounds. On a more sophisticated level though, scientists were awed by the revelation that this fungus existed in the older Jurassic epoch, not 30 million years after dinosaurs had become extinct (the prevailing theory then).
The 2015 discovery was made by German paleontologist Jörg Wunderlich in a mine in Myanmar. It was in an area where sauropods are known to have lived, and where the ergot archetype would have had the conditions needed to grow. Wunderlich found a perfectly preserved amber fossil containing the oldest grass specimen ever discovered, on top of which was a 100-million-year-old variant of ergot, subsequently named Palaeoclaviceps parasiticus. He then sent the fossil to preeminent paleo-entomologist and professor emeritus George Poinar, Jr., at Oregon State University for analysis. (Fun trivia sidebar: Poinar is the paleobiologist whose publications gave Michael Crichton the idea for the book that inspired the 1993 movie “Jurassic Park.”)
Poinar’s discovery that amber could preserve intracellular structures in an organism trapped inside provided the basis for this “Jurassic Park” (1993) plot device.
Poinar is convinced that sauropods consumed the prehistoric ergot, but he’s careful not to commit to claiming that they were intoxicated by it. Even so, he implied that it would be reasonable to assume that the fungus affected those animals the same way it affects all others, making the long-necked mega-reptiles susceptible to hallucinations and other experiences. In his personal article announcing his findings, Poinar states:
“[T]his parasitic fungus may have been around almost as long as the grasses themselves, as both a toxin and natural hallucinogen. There’s no doubt in my mind that it would have been eaten by sauropod dinosaurs, although we can’t know what exact effect it had on them. … [I]magine a huge sauropod dinosaur that just ate a large portion of this psychotropic fungus, which in other animal species can cause anything from hallucinations to delirium, gangrene, convulsions or the staggers.”
In an interview given to Live Science, Poinar reiterated directly that his and Wunderlich’s finding “indicates that psychedelic compounds were present back in the Cretaceous.” So, perhaps another surprise in Myanmar will fill in the gaps and paint a clearer picture as to whether sauropods got high – and whether they did it deliberately, for that matter. (For fun info on eight animals that use hallucinogens recreationally, read this Matador Network article.)
Salem’s Soulless Sickness
In December 1691, eight girls were afflicted with an unrecognized ailment that caused disorderly speech, odd postures and gestures, and convulsive fits. When physicians failed to come up with a diagnosis, one doctor suggested in February 1692 that the girls might be bewitched. Of her own initiative, a neighbor of one of the girls had a Barbados native concoct a “witch cake” to test the girls for witchcraft. This set in motion a chain of events that resulted in elaborate court proceedings for more than 150 men, women and children, and the deaths of 20 wrongly convicted people – within months.
In 1976, social psychologist Linnda Caporael published an article in which she proposed that the “witchcraft delusion” in 1692 Salem was the product of convulsive ergotism. Her analysis was swiftly challenged by Nicholas Spanos and Jack Gottlieb in their 1976 rebuttal article, but historian and author Mary Matossian tediously poked holes in their rebuttal with her own 1982 article. Ultimately, the combined logic presented by Caporael and Matossian warrants far greater respect than what those who dismiss the original explanation as a “fringe theory” give it. Despite the incredulity of skeptics, however, many sources – including a U.S. Department of Agriculture article – do vouch for ergotism as causing the girls’ symptoms.
The most compelling facets of the ergotism theory are the trials’ suspicious spontaneity and the victims’ confined geography and unique physical symptoms. As Matossian points out, the Salem trials happened 47 years after the last epidemic of witch persecution in England, and New Englanders already believed in witchcraft. So, there had to be a reason for the sudden resurgence of persecuting suspected witches. Was it simply sudden-onset mass psychosis, a community zapped inexplicably by some schizoaffective disorder? Possible, but improbable. Rather, a synchronous onset of food poisoning among people eating a shared food supply – in this case, rye bread – is a far more rational explanation for abruptly taking drastic action the way they did.
Also, Matossian notes that the infirmed ladies accused of witchcraft were only in Essex County, Massachusetts, and Fairfield County, Connecticut. In her article, Caporael provides a map of the rye fields in those areas at the time of the trials and even traces the likely sequence of contamination, person by person. One could presume that psycho-social hysteria was driving the girls’ behavior, even if only in two counties, even though all of New England maintained the same belief system. Alternatively, one could consider that an ergotism outbreak would neatly explain the conspicuous borders of the witch-hunting zones.
A third point is that the kind of convulsions, hallucinations and sensory disturbances demonstrated by the alleged witches cannot be produced by psychological stimuli. Spanos and Gottlieb used that argument nonetheless, even going so far as to accuse the girls of role-playing in the presence of social cues. What they don’t account for though, and Matossian does, is the fact that animals were showing the same symptoms that the girls were showing. By overlooking the fact that living beings not susceptible to social cues were having convulsions and other such symptoms, Spanos and Gottlieb were as irresponsible as the Salem villagers of 1692.
Then and Now
There has been documented evidence of ergotism throughout the northern hemisphere since at least 1100 B.C. Since 2015, the field of paleontology has ambiguously contended that ergot’s origin predates that by scores of millions of years. And even if we don’t have the fun of being sure that dinosaurs tripped out on prehistoric LSD, it’s intriguing and humbling to be put in our place as a species – so scientifically advanced, and yet ultimately so cosmically ignorant.
Also, we know only in part what the body count – thus far – is of ergotism. Across millennia, untold hundreds of thousands of people in Greece, China, Mesopotamia (Samar and Assyria), Egypt, France, Germany and other places have died from ingesting contaminated bread. In France alone, certain regions have been stripped of half their population due to poisoned rye bread, such as the A.D. 994 outbreak in Aquitane that killed over 40,000 people. Later in France, nine ergotism epidemics slammed people in the 1600s, and seven in the 1700s. So, this toxin has a tendency to depopulate areas with ruthless efficiency from time to time.
And then there’s mankind’s quickness to depopulate areas on its own for one reason or another. In the not-so-distant past, the reason was a virulent confusion of the physical elements for spiritual elements. “Witches” were tortured and hanged for – in all probability – suffering from ergotism as their townsfolk stubbornly or stupidly refused to analyze trends that would have revealed the distinction. In that instance, ergot was somewhere between being guilty by association and being the winner in a chess game against the Scientific Method.
Today, ergotism primarily affects livestock (cattle, pigs, chickens, etc.), not humans. Presumably, the poisoned animals perish well before entering any carnivore’s food chain, preventing a transference of the toxin. And progress in agriculture, toxicology and other related fields has minimized the risk to humans of accidentally consuming toxic rye flour in particular (albeit not exclusively). That’s not to say that there’s no risk though, and the most recent noteworthy ergotism outbreak was in France (again) in 1951. So, it’s understandable if nibbling on rye bread feels a little like playing Russian Roulette to you now.
Kathleen Hearons is a writer, editor, linguist and voice over actor from Los Angeles. She specializes in creative writing and research-intensive analysis and reporting.
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