Originally published on Eleusis, n. 4, 1996, pp. 40-41
Balanta people of Guinea Bisseau use the aqueous extracts prepared from the roots of a plant, called tchúnfki
, in religious rites, due to their psychotropic effects (Filippini & Allegri, rep. In 1). The plant has been identified as Securidaca longipedunculata
Fres., a 3-4 m high shrub or little tree, belonging to the Polygalaceae family.
The roots of the same plant are used in Malawi, in the Nsanje District, together with three other plants (Chenopodium ambrosoides L., Chenopodiaceae; Asparagus africanus Lam., Liliaceae; Annona senegalensis Pers., Annonaceae), to induce "spirit possession" (5). Furthermore, the same plant is used in healing sessions with possible psychopharmacological implications by the !Kung of South Africa (8). The Chopi of South Africa use this plant, together with a Malpighiaceous plant, Sphedamnocarpus pruriens Szysz, as medicine for people "possessed by evil spirits" (7).
During the past years, in the roots of S. longipedunculata Italian chemists surprisingly found ergot alkaloids: elymoclavine, dehydroelymoclavine, and a new ergoline compound (compound A, cf. fig.) (1,2,6). In a more detailed analysis, ergot alkaloids (six in number) have been shown to be present in the roots only during the dry season, while during the wet season cis- and trans-derivatives of cinnamonic acid are present (9).
It has to be pointed out that this plant, traditionally used as medicine in many African countries, is also considered toxic, particularlu in its roots. These are used by different tribes to kill or to commit suicide; they are usually inserted into the vagina, rectally, urethrally or even orally. The death usually occurs after 12 hours (4,5). The roots contain also methylsalicilate and many volatile compounds, such as benzoic acid derivatives (3).
Likely, there are only particular moments of the year in which the roots of this plant possess psychotropic properties.
After having ascertained that the Balanta use an aqueous extract of the ergot alkaloids-bearing roots for their psychotropic effects, the following questions arises: could this be an African key to the psychopharmacological solution of the Eleusinian Mysteries?
1) COSTA C. & A. BERTAZZI, 1992, Preliminary Studies for Identification of Alkaloids from Securidaca longipedunculata, Il Farmaco, 47:121-126.
2) COSTA A. et al., 1992, Indole Alkaloids from the Roots of an African Plant: Securidaca longipedunculata. Part I, J.Heter.Chem., 29:1641-7.
3) COSTA C. et al., 1992, Gas Chromatography / Mass Spectrometric Investigation of the Volatile Main Components from Roots of Securidaca longipedunculata, Org.Mass Spectr., 27:255-257.
4) GALEFFI C. et al., 1990, New xanthones from Ectiadiopsis oblongifolia and Securidaca longipedunculata, Fitoter., 61:79-81.
5) HARGREAVES B.J., 1986, Plant induced "spirit possession" in Malawi, Soc.Malawi J., 39:26-35.
6) SCANDOLA M. et al., 1994, Structural Study of Alkaloids from Securidaca longipedunculata Roots. Part II, J.Heter.Chem., 31:219-224.
7) WATT J.M. & M.G. BREYER-BRANDWIJK, 1962, Medicinal and Poisonous Plants of Southern and Eastern Africa, Edinburgh & London, Livingstone.
8) WINKLEMAN M. & DOBKIN DE RIOS M., 1989, Psychoactive properties of !Kung Bushmen Medicine Plants, J:Psychoact.Drugs, 21:51-59.
9) WROBEL J.T. et al., n.d., Indole Alkaloids and Other Constituents from the Plant Securidaca longipedunculata Fres., n.d., :15-19.