Shamans across central and South America have used psychotropic plants to commune with the spirit world for hundreds of years. One of the most common drug concoctions is ayahuasca, a psychedelic compound generally consumed as tea that contains the hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine, or DMT.
In Quechua, a language of local indigenous groups in South America, ayahuasca means “vine of the dead” or “vine of the soul.” DMT gives the user feelings of being separated from the body, encountering mystical or otherworldly beings, having an altered perception of time, feeling peace and joy, and having heightened senses.
Amazonian spiritual leaders were tripping on ayahuasca long before the tea became popular in the US over the last several years. But archaeologists weren’t sure just how far back in history the tradition went.
Now, in a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, archaeologists report what may be the earliest evidence of ayahuasca use in South America.
In 2010, researchers unearthed a 1,000-year-old pouch made up of three fox heads sewn together in a cave high in the Bolivian Andes. Chemical analysis revealed that the pouch contained traces of multiple hallucinogenic drugs, including cocaine and the primary ingredients for ayahuasca.
The study authors said the pouch contained the largest number of psychoactive substances recovered from a single artifact in South America.
According to one of the study’s co-authors, José Capriles, the person who owned this pouch was probably a shaman — “a ritual specialist who could intermediate between supernatural deities and the ‘real world’ by consuming these substances.”
The pouch was likely left in the cave by looters from a rival group
The researchers weren’t looking for shamanic artifacts originally. Instead, they had wanted to find evidence of early humans colonizing high-altitudes in the Andes. Cueva del Chileno, the cave in which the pouch was found, is located almost 13,000 feet above sea-level in southwestern Bolivia.
Capriles said the cave was probably a burial site, and the pouch was part of “a mummy bundle” — a collection of ritual offerings buried with important members of the community. But the archaeologists didn’t find any bodies inside the cave, likely because the owner of the pouch’s body ran afoul of looters.
‘Mummies had an important political role in these ancient societies when there was conflict between competing polities,” Capriles told Business Insider. “Mummy bundles from opposing groups were often desecrated, leading us to believe this bundle was left unintentionally when they were moving the mummy.”
The bundle contained cocaine and a handful of hallucinogens
The bundle included the fox-snout pouch, as well as other artifacts like a colorful headband, tiny spatulas carved from llama bone, and a snuff tube decorated with braided human hair.
The archaeologists used radiocarbon dating to discover that the bundle was around 1,000 years old. Then, the researchers took a sample of the material inside the fox pouch, and identified trace amounts of at least three different plants.
The pouch contained two primary ingredients of ayahuasca — dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and harmine — as well as cocaine, bufotenine, and psilocin. The latter two substances are hallucinogenic compounds found in psychedelic mushrooms.
This isn’t the first time archaeologists have found these substances in the fossil record. But it is the first time they’ve identified so many together.
“This is important because it suggests that this shaman had knowledge not just of how to use a single plant species, but many of them at once,” Capriles said. It always suggests that the shaman who owned the pouch went to great lengths to obtain these items, by either traveling widely across the continent or trading for them, because none of the plants were native to southwestern Bolivia.
Shamans used these substances to connect with the spirit world
“This is the first evidence of ancient South Americans potentially combining different medicinal plants to produce a powerful substance like ayahuasca,” study co-author Melanie Miller said in a press release. The finding is not only proof that its owner was well-connected and well-traveled, but also knowledgeable.
“A lot of these plants, if consumed in the wrong dosage, could be very poisonous,” Miller added.
Capriles said that the 1,000-year-old pouch extends our knowledge of how far back in history shamans used these substances to commune with the spirit world, embody spiritual deities, and contact their ancestors.
“In South America, there’s been a long tradition of use, and these plants play an important role in people’s lives,” Capriles said. “Far from engaging with them for entertainment purposes, these plants provided people with the opportunities to interact with more subtle aspects of life.”