Opium Poppy - The History of Domestication

Domestication and History

Papaver somniferum ssp setigerum
Papaver somniferum ssp setigerum. Maurid80


Scholars believe that the pretty poppy, better known as the opium poppy but still the same plant as that in your garden, was probably domesticated in either the Mediterranean region or in northern Europe, approximately 5500 BC. Why people cultivated the flower so long ago may have been the same reasons as we use it today: for medicinal purposes, for reaching altered states of consciousness, and even for its attractive and distinctive presence in a garden.

Evidence and Background

The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum L.) is an annual plant native to Asia and the Mediterranean region. In addition to its fame as part of an illegal drug trade, poppy today is cultivated for its blue-black crunchy seeds and seed oil used in culinary dishes, for medicinal uses, and, because its flowers are bright and colorful, as a garden ornamental.

P. somniferum's modern medical uses include painkiller, sedative, cough suppressant and antidiarrheal; it has recently been investigated as a source of linoleic acid, which is thought to reduce the risk of heart disease (Heinrich 2013). Poppy is primarily known as the source for the analgesic alkaloids codeine, thebaine and morphine. The alkaloid content is approximately 10-20% of the chemical makeup of poppy seeds.

Prehistoric poppy use is largely assumed to have been for its narcotic and culinary capabilities. Bogaard et al. have suggested that one possible prehistoric use of poppy is as a decorative plant, as markers of social identity in the central European Neolithic culture Linearbandkeramik (LBK). The configuration of fields planted to poppy, say the scholars, may have reflected a "neighborhood" pattern within those communities.

Domesticating Poppies

Scholars believe that P. somniferum ssp. somniferum was probably domesticated from the wild opium poppy (Papaver somniferum ssp. setigerum), which is native to the western Mediterranean basin, and probably at least 7,000 years ago. Two theories about where the poppy originated are current in the literature, both attempting to explain how poppy arrived in LBK [5600-5000 cal BC] sites so far outside of its region of origin. The problem with determining where that occurred is that it is nearly impossible to differentiate between the P.s. somniferum and P.s. setigerum from the seed alone: the morphological differences are most in evidence from the capsule, which typically does not survive archaeologically. Poppy seeds found in LBK sites in central Europe are considered domesticated because they are outside of their region of origin.

Poppy was definitely not one of the first eight founder crops (emmer and einkorn wheats, barley, pea, lentil, chickpea, bitter vetch, and flax), brought into Europe from central Asia in their domestic form by about 6000 years ago (cal BP). Some scholars (including Salavert) argue that the process of poppy domestication occurred in the LBK sites in northern Europe. Others (such as Antolín and Buxó) argue that LBK farmers obtained domesticated the poppy through contacts with groups in the western Mediterranean, perhaps the La Hoguette Group in France.

Archaeological Evidence

The oldest occurrence of poppy is from a single seed from an archaeological site is from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic C (7481-5984 BC) site of Atlit-Yam, in modern-day Israel. Other early occurrences include the earlier sixth-millennium cal BC in La Draga central Spain and Can Sadurni in central Italy, predating the LBK.

The greatest diversity of poppy species is found in Turkey (36 species), Iran (30 species) and adjacent areas; Spain and Italy only have 15.

Early Sites (primarily charred seeds):

  • Israel: Atlit-Yam (single wild seed, 9000-8200 cal BP)
  • Italy: La Marmotta (5400 cal BC)
  • Spain: La Draga, Los Castillejos (6th millennium BC), Los Murciélagos Cave
  • France: Le Chenet des Pierres (4400-4000 cal BC)
  • Germany: Meindling (6000-6400 RCYBP), Wangels LA 505, Bruchenbrücken, Ulm, Vaihingen an der Enz (5500-5100 cal BC)
  • Netherlands: Swifterbant culture sites (ca 4900 cal BC)
  • Belgium: Momalle, Bia Flo



Antolín F, and Buxó R. 2012. Chasing the traces of diffusion of agriculture during the early neolithic in the western mediterranean coast. Rubricatum Revista del Museu de Gava 5: Congrés Internacional Xarxes al Neolític – Neolithic Networks:95-102.

Bogaard A, Krause R, and Strien H-C. 2011. Towards a social geography of cultivation and plant use in an early farming community: Vaihingen an der Enz, south-west Germany. Antiquity 85(328):395-416.

Heinrich M. 2013. Ethnopharmacology and Drug DiscoveryReference Module in Chemistry, Molecular Sciences and Chemical Engineering: Elsevier.

Kirleis W, Klooß S, Kroll H, and Müller J. 2012. Crop growing and gathering in the northern German Neolithic: a review supplemented by new results. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 21(3):221-242.

Martin L, Jacomet S, and Thiebault S. 2008. Plant economy during the Neolithic in a mountain context: the case of “Le Chenet des Pierres” in the French Alps (Bozel-Savoie, France). Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 17:113-122.

Mohsin HF, Wahab IA, Nasir NI, Zulkefli NH, and Nasir NIS. 2012. The Chemical Investigation of Papaver Seeds. International Journal on Advanced Science, Engineering and Information Technology 2(4):38-41.

Peña-Chocarro L, Pérez Jordà G, Morales Mateos J, and Zapata L. 2013. Neolithic plant use in the western Mediterranean region: preliminary results from the AGRIWESTMED project. Annali di Botanica 3:135-141.

Salavert A. 2011. Plant economy of the first farmers of central Belgium (Linearbandkeramik, 5200–5000 b.c.)Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 20(5):321-332.