This is a view of the Cueva del Chileno excavation site.

Enlarge / This is a view of the Cueva del Chileno excavation site. (credit: José Capriles, Penn State)

In a rock shelter in the highlands of southwest Bolivia amid the rubble of an area once set aside for funerary rituals, archaeologists found a leather-wrapped bundle of tools for preparing and inhaling snuff. They radiocarbon-dated the bundle to between 905 and 1170 CE, which is when the Tiwanaku Empire (a predecessor of the Inca and rival of the nearby Wari) was crumbling into smaller regional states. Chemical analysis reveals that the bundle once contained a small assortment of psychoactive plants, including coca leaves and ayahuasca.

Unwrapping a shaman’s bundle

Archaeologists Melanie Miller, José Capriles, and their colleagues used mass spectrometry to identify traces of cocaine, along with four other compounds, inside a hide pouch sewn from the skins of three fox snouts.

One compound, harmine, points to a plant called ayahuasca. Amazonian people brew it into a mind-altering tea, which also has traditional medicinal uses. Mixed with a plant called chacruna, the brew can produce vivid hallucinations. Small amounts of a compound called DMT could come from chacruna or from the seeds of a tree called vilca (whose name means “sacred” in the Quechua language of Peru). So it’s hard to say whether this was a ritual blend or a medicinal one. There’s not much archaeological evidence for ayahuasca, aside from traces of harmine in the hair of two Tiwanaku mummies from northern Chile who date from between 400 and 900 CE. So anthropologists still don’t agree on how long ago people started using it.

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