Ancient ritual bundle contained multiple psychotropic plants

Ancient ritual bundle contained multiple psychotropic plants
The team found psychoactive compounds in an animal-skin pouch constructed of three fox snouts stitched together. Credit: Jose Capriles, Penn State

A thousand years ago, Native Americans in South America used multiple psychotropic plants—possibly simultaneously—to induce hallucinations and altered consciousness, according to an international team of anthropologists.

"We already knew that psychotropics were important in the spiritual and religious activities of the societies of the south-central Andes, but we did not know that these people were using so many different and possibly combining them together," said Jose Capriles, assistant professor of anthropology, Penn State. "This is the largest number of psychoactive substances ever found in a single archaeological assemblage from South America."

The researchers were searching for ancient occupations in the dry rock shelters of the now-dry Sora River valley in southwestern Bolivia when they found a ritual bundle as part of a human burial. The bundle—bound in a leather bag—contained, among other things, two snuffing tablets (used to pulverize psychotropic plants into snuff), a snuffing tube (for smoking hallucinogenic plants), and a pouch constructed of three fox snouts.

The team used accelerator mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the outer leather bag and found that it was about 1,000 years old.

"This period in this location is associated with the disintegration of the Tiwanaku state and the emergence of regional polities," said Capriles.

Ancient ritual bundle contained multiple psychotropic plants
The researchers found a ritual bundle in the Cueva del Chileno rock shelter located in southwestern Bolivia. Credit: Jose Capriles, Penn State

In addition, the team used a scalpel to obtain a tiny scraping from the interior of the fox-snout pouch and analyzed the material using liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry.

"This method is highly sensitive and very effective for detecting the presence of minute amounts of specific compounds from very small samples," said Melanie Miller, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and research affiliate at the University of California, Berkeley, who was responsible for analyzing the samples.

The researchers identified the presence of multiple psychoactive compounds—cocaine, benzoylecgonine (the primary metabolite of cocaine), harmine, bufotenin, dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and possibly psilocin (a compound found in some mushrooms)—from at least three different plant species (likely Erythroxylum coca, a species of Anadenanthera and Banistesteriopsis caani). The results will appear during the week of May 6 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to Capriles, the fox-snout pouch likely belonged to a shaman.

"Shamans were ritual specialists who had knowledge of plants and how to use them as mechanisms to engage with supernatural beings, including venerated ancestors who were thought to exist in other realms," said Capriles. "It is possible that the shaman who owned this pouch consumed multiple different plants simultaneously to produce different effects or extend his or her hallucinations.'"

Ancient ritual bundle contained multiple psychotropic plants
The ritual bundle included two carved and decorated wooden snuffing tablets that would have been used as a platform on which to pulverize psychotropic plants. Credit: Jose Capriles, Penn State

Capriles noted that the co-occurrence of harmine and DMT, which are the primary ingredients of ayahuasca—a beverage that is reported to induce hallucinations and altered consciousness—in the pouch suggests the use of this beverage as one of the drugs in the shaman's kit.

"Some scholars believe that ayahuasca has relatively recent origins, while others argue that it may have been used for centuries, or even millennia," said Capriles. "Given the presence of harmine and DMT together in the pouch we found, it is likely that this shaman ingested these simultaneously to achieve a hallucinogenic state, either through a beverage, such as ayahuasca, or through a composite snuff that contained these plants in a single mixture. This finding suggests that ayahuasca may have been used up to 1,000 years ago."

Not only does the presence of numerous compounds suggest simultaneous use of drugs and earlier use of ayahuasca, in particular, but it also indicates intricate botanical knowledge by the owner of the pouch and an effort to acquire hallucinogenic plants, as the plants came from different regions of mostly tropical South America.

"The presence of these compounds indicates the owner of this kit had access to at least three plants with psychoactive compounds, but potentially even four or five," said Miller. "None of the psychoactive compounds we found come from plants that grow in this area of the Andes, indicating either the presence of elaborate exchange networks or the movement of this individual across diverse environments to procure these special plants. This discovery reminds us that people in the past had extensive knowledge of these powerful and their potential uses, and they sought them out for their medicinal and psychoactive properties."

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More information: Melanie J. Miller el al., "Chemical evidence for the use of multiple psychotropic plants in a 1,000-year-old ritual bundle from South America," PNAS (2019).
Citation: Ancient ritual bundle contained multiple psychotropic plants (2019, May 6) retrieved 16 September 2019 from
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May 06, 2019
How does this culture differ from "drugs, tobacco and alcohol" culture of modern world, except for religious sanctification?
Probably it was as detrimental to people and society then and there, as it is now and here.

Well, there are many studies to answer that. Alcohol is by far one of the worst drugs in the world under any context. Not only is bad for the body at physiological level, but it is very detrimental at psychological and social level. Psychedelics, like the ones found in this study, are known for effects that are almost opposite to those of alcohol. Indeed, if you search medicalxpress you will find recent research papers showing how alcohol damages white connective fibers in the brain, causing people' minds to narrow down, which is the opposite effect of psychedelics like LSD or psylocibin, or DMT.

Modern societies are destroying themselves, no doubt. Some by keeping themselves sober at all times, others by taking the wrong and destructive psychoactive drugs.

May 06, 2019
well, is that where they left the myrrh & frankincense....

For all the altright fairytails shedding crocodile tears, whining about Marxism.
Without actually reading the any source materials...
hey, they have a hard enough time with comicbooks!

When Karl Marx called "Religion as the opium of the masses"...
Reading the context, shows Marx was expressing sympathy for the peoples daily suffering under oppressive regimes.

Religion was, too often, the ordinary person's only solace.

May 06, 2019
Well, all that god talking didn't save them either. Studies point to all of south America being intensively cultivated, covered in road networks and building, with heavy trading and hard use of the land. Shockingly there was some climate change and nearly everyone died of starvation, forcing them to abandon the cities in favor of farm country to survive. The parallels between then and now have rarely been more obvious.

May 07, 2019
They've found the yaqui brujo don juan matus. At least his corporeal self. I guess his dance with death didnt go so well.

May 07, 2019
all that god talking didn't save them either. Studies point to all of south America being intensively cultivated, covered in road networks and building, with heavy trading and hard use of the land. Shockingly there was some climate change and nearly everyone died of starvation, forcing them to abandon the cities

Make believe, whether religious and/or drug induced, can make you feel different than yesterday, but even the happenstance good feeling is problematic since reality is what it is.

I don't think we have observed starvation in connection with droughts or other problems - the world's largest city at the time (or slightly later; Angkor Wat) was abandoned because of bad repair made it worn and unpopular, a familiar problem - but more work for less food than elsewhere would do a city in.

May 07, 2019
Modern societies are destroying themselves, no doubt.

Things are better than ever before in human history, everywhere on Earth.

So the net is still positive.

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