BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA—New Scientist reports that Melanie Miller of the University of Otago and her colleagues detected traces of five psychoactive chemicals on a collection of drug paraphernalia discovered in a rock shelter in southwestern Bolivia. The rock shelter is thought to have been a funerary enclosure where members of the Tiwanaku state may have held ceremonies believed to enable contact with the dead. Radiocarbon dating indicates the artifacts, including a leather bag, wooden snuffing tablets and a snuffing tube carved with human-like figures, llama-bone spatulas, a textile headband, bits of dried plants, and a pouch made from three fox snouts stitched together, are approximately 1,000 years old. The scientists suggest plant matter may have been ground and prepared for use in the snuffing tablets and inhaled with the tube. Because none of the plants these psychoactive chemicals are made from are native to the region, the scientists suggest travelling shamans may have carried their own supplies, or the Tiwanaku may have obtained them through trade networks.
Sam Wong reports for NewScientist:
Traces of five drugs found on 1000-year-old South American ritual kit
A 1000-year-old collection of drug paraphernalia found in a rock shelter in Bolivia features traces of five psychoactive chemicals, including cocaine and components of ayahuasca.
This is the largest number of psychoactive compounds detected in a single archaeological find in South America, the researchers say. The plants they come from aren’t native to the highland area where they were found, so they may have been brought there by trading networks or travelling shamans.
The artefacts were found among the rubble inside a structure that may have served as a funerary enclosure in the Lípez highlands of south-western Bolivia. They include a 28-centimetre-long leather bag, a pair of wooden snuffing tablets, a snuffing tube, a pair of llama-bone spatulas, a textile headband, fragments of dried plant stems and a pouch made from three fox snouts stitched together. The snuffing tube and tablets feature ornate carvings of human-like figures.
Radiocarbon dating puts the date of the bag at AD 905 to 1170, roughly coinciding with the collapse of the Tiwanaku state, a once-powerful Andean civilisation that endured for around five centuries.
Drugs are thought to have played an important role in Tiwanaku culture, possibly in healing ceremonies and religious rituals believed to enable contact with the dead.
Melanie Miller at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and her colleagues used mass spectrometry to analyse samples from the pouch and plant stems. They detected five psychoactive compounds: cocaine, benzoylecgonine (BZE), bufotenine, harmine and dimethyltryptamine (DMT).
Cocaine and BZE are both found in coca leaves, which are commonly chewed or made into tea in Bolivia and Peru to this day, with a mild stimulant effect. These compounds have previously been found in hair from mummified bodies in the region, even those of young infants, who may have consumed it in their mothers’ milk.
Harmine and DMT are among the active ingredients in ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew made from various plants and used in spiritual ceremonies by indigenous South American people. Bufotenine, another psychedelic compound, is found in some seeds and in the skin of certain toads. It has also been detected in mummy hair.
The presence of these drugs suggests the pouch may have belonged to a ritual specialist or shaman with extensive knowledge of plants and their psychoactive properties, and used to hold leaves, seeds and other plant matter. The seeds may have been ground on the snuffing tablets and inhaled using the tube, while the leaves could have been chewed or brewed in a drink.
Journal reference: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, DOI: 10. 1073/pnas.1902174116