The Stoned Ape Theory – Are mushrooms responsible for what we are?

Between 2 million and 300,000 years ago, humans as we know ourselves today had our form and began to grow our brains at a rate unprecedented in the planet’s known history. There is no way to definitively prove why this occurred, but one theory, championed by Terrence McKenna, offers a plausible – dare we say probable explanation – The Stoned Ape Theory.

The Stoned Ape Theory is a bit less crude than it sounds or reads to the untrained eyes and ears. McKenna’s theory takes us back to before the time of modern humans, to a time where climate change forced our ape ancestors out of the trees in South Africa, into the vast grasslands of the south-east of the African continent.

Originally, our ancestors lived solely on vegetation and fruits found in treetops, according to Terrence. There is evidence in the fossil records of modern day South Africa and Kenya to support this as early preserved Homo. species didn’t seem to eat meat or insects until the transition to the grasslands occurred and bands began to wander and turn into hunter-gatherer tribes. It took hundreds or even thousands of years for the diet to diversify to suit the grasslands, but eventually our ancestors adapted and expanded their diets to include more than just fruits and leaves from treetops. Things like insects, leftover meat from lion kills, and mushrooms found their ways into diet through trial and error.

By a miracle of luck, or desperation, or perhaps fate, it is hypothesised that an early ape ancestor of ours came across a pile of animal dung, flipped it over while searching for grubs and beetles, and found mushrooms growing under the refuse. This mushroom, once the ape saw fit to ingest it, catapulted the individual into a sensory experience unlike anything previously known to it. It had unknowingly ingested a psychedelic P. cubensis magic mushroom.

Picture this for a moment. You’re an unconscious ape with limited self awareness for your entire life, then all of a sudden, BAM! You’re in the realm of pure consciousness, receiving inputs never experienced by any primate before this moment. Not only that, but you become more fearless – as psilocybin is now known to downregulate the fear response in the brain by reducing blood flow to the amygdala. Imagine what such a thing could do for hunting large and dangerous animals for larger portions of food.

But remember, you’re part of a group of apes. You are not alone the majority of the time. If you were, you’d be eaten. Imagine the reactions of your relatives when they see you eat these mushrooms and have a fully immersive experience on a psychedelic, complete with the feelings of calm, focus, visualizations, increased auditory sensitivity, and displaying happiness not experienced by most animals due to that fear of being eaten. Your fellow apes see all of this, and you lead them to the mushrooms and encourage them to eat. They do. The course of our evolutionary destiny changes forever.

Psilocybin, as brilliantly researched and explained by Paul Stamets, causes neurogenesis to occur in brains – meaning that it stimulates the growth of new, healthy neurons. And the more neurons there are, the more processing power and memory capacity brains have. As Stamets also explains in his 2017 interview on the Joe Rogan Podcast, this event didn’t stop with a single band of apes and one refuse pile. Psilocybe Cubensis were all over African grasslands, and the climate allowed them to grow year round. This event didn’t happen once. It happened millions, upon millions, upon millions of times over millions of years.

As brains were stimulated to grow more and more neurons, each successive generation would be born with the ability to grow more as a genetic baseline. And slowly, but rapidly by evolutionary standards, brains doubled in size over that of the first ape who ate the first mushroom so many generations before. The biggest changes are thought to have occurred in the cerebrum, the large hemispheres in the higher regions of our modern brains – the regions for cognition, coordination, and language.

The enhancements to these brain regions allowed us to better communicate, form languages, hunt more effectively, and also increased our reproductive urgest because of the stimulating effects on serotonin receptors. So we can now talk, eat more food, and have an increased reproductive drive? No wonder we spread across the globe in such a short period of time. 

With language came stories, legends, religions, ideas, philosophies – not only these but also ways to preserve them in paintings, carvings and writings. This ability to pass on complex knowledge to new generations was critical in creating the society we know today. 

On the grand scale of time, nothing we have today, no matter how simple, would exist without this vital skill, believed to have been gifted by the mushrooms of Africa.

This is the meaning of the Stoned Ape Theory, that mushrooms could have given rise to what we are today. After so many generations removed from them, science is making a strong case that we should go back, as quickly as possible. Magic mushrooms are showing great promise in the treatment of mental health and neurological diseases. And if this theory holds to be more plausible than fictional, it may be that psilocybin in low doses could one day be recommended as an essential nutrient in the same way as vitamins and minerals.

What are your thoughts on this theory? Does it hold up? If not, what holes can you spot in it?

Additional resources

Terence McKenna –  Mushrooms, Evolution, and the Millennium

Stoned Ape & Fungal Intelligence – Paul Stamets

Joe Rogan Experience #1035 – Paul Stamets