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The First Opium-Using Societies:

Opium, a narcotic sap contained within the seedpod of the Asian opium poppy, has been used by humankind since the Stone Age. Since its earliest users had neither the knowledge nor the intricate tools needed to harvest the plant's sap, most of them probably obtained its effects by boiling, steeping, or soaking the plant's seedpods and then drinking the resulting tea. This seedpod tea probably delivered rather weak opium doses, however, since excessive amounts of seedpods and labor would have been required for potent batches. Thus, the drug's pain-relieving and other medicinal benefits, which include soothing respiratory and lower digestive tract ailments, would have been experienced at moderate levels by these earliest users. Likewise, its undesirable side effects, which include flushing and itching of the skin, dry mouth, and occasional nausea and vomiting, would also have been mild, and opium addiction and overdose was probably very uncommon.

The earliest known opium-users were the Sumerians in the highlands of what is now Turkey and Iraq. "The first reference to opium," explains pain relief expert Dr. J.C.D. Wells, "seems to have been an inscription carved on a tablet by members of the Sumerian tribe around 4000 years B . C ."The Sumerians were quite fond of the opium poppy, with its delicate white-to-pink or purple petals, and called it hul gil, which meant "joy plant." When the Sumerians migrated from the Middle East into lower Mesopotamia about 3500 B . C ., they brought the opium poppy with them, and it became one of the main crops of the flourishing agricultural society that they developed there.

Sumerian poppy farmers in Mesopotamia discovered an even more efficient way to harvest opium. They found that if they cut incisions on the poppy's mature seedpod, which is about the size of a chicken egg, most of the opium would ooze out within twenty-four hours and dry into a latexlike substance that could then be scraped from the outside of the pod. This efficient harvesting technique, which opium poppy farmers employ to the present day, enabled people to eat or drink strong, concentrated doses of opium for the first time in history.

The increased dosage strength provided the first significant medicinal pain remedy known to humankind, and led to substantially increased instances of opium addiction and lethal overdose.

The Sumerians passed their knowledge of opium harvesting to other Mesopotamian civilizations, such as Assyria. These poppyculling practices continued from the Assyrians to the Babylonians, who would in turn pass their knowledge on to the Egyptians. About the time of King Tutankhamen's reign in 1400 B . C ., the Egyptians themselves had become extremely productive cultivators of opium, and the sprawling poppy fields of their capital city of Thebes had become internationally renowned.

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