[Canniseur: Is this a shaman’s stash or someone’s personal supply? This kind of artifact discovery allows us to put together missing pieces of our history. Now we know, definitively, psychedelics were used in ancient times. However if you asked me even before this discovery I would have said, psychedelics have been in use since the cognitive revolution began 70,000 years ago.]
It’s well documented that humans have consumed alcohol and caffeine for thousands of years. Now, new research offers evidence that people have also been ingesting a number of even more mind-altering substances, including those involved in making the powerful hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca, for at least 1,000 years.
And we have the discovery of an ancient South American drug stash stored in a pouch made out of fox snouts to thank for that.
According to a study published Monday, a team of archaeologists discovered a “ritual bundle” in southwestern Bolivia that included, among other items, a large leather bag, a “snuffing tablet” that would have been used to grind plants, a “snuffing tube” for ingesting the substances and a pouch fashioned with the snouts of three foxes. Researchers at UC Berkeley tested a sample taken from inside the pouch to discover at least five plant-based psychoactive substances, including dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and harmine, both of which are key ingredients in ayahuasca.
Ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew typically associated with indigenous people from Amazonian cultures, produces strong and vivid hallucinations and has been used for spiritual healing facilitated by shamans. DMT—like marijuana—is considered an illegal Schedule I substance in the U.S.
The new findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, come as a handful of city and state governments in the U.S. are considering measures to decriminalize psychedelic drugs, including psilocybin. On Tuesday, for example, Denver voters could make their city the first in the U.S. to decriminalize psychedelic mushrooms.
The stash found at the Bolivian site also contained evidence suggesting that psychedelic mushrooms were once part of the drug collection.
“While psilocin was not in our initial compound screenings, the presence of a peak at the retention times and transitions, corresponding to psilocin, suggests it was in the original sample,” the study says. “Psilocin is also a tryptamine…and it may be possible that its presence in the sample is derived from a psilocin containing fungus.”
Melanie Miller, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Otago in New Zealand, is the study’s lead author. She traveled to Bolivia during her doctoral studies at UC Berkeley to join other archaeologists as they underwent an excavation project in the Sora River valley, located in Bolivia’s Lípez highlands. There, the team discovered the artifacts inside a cave thought to once have been a burial site.
“Our findings support the idea that people have been using these powerful plants for at least 1,000 years, combining them to go on a psychedelic journey, and that ayahuasca use may have roots in antiquity,” Miller said in a statement.
“This is the first evidence of ancient South Americans potentially combining different medicinal plants to produce a powerful substance like ayahuasca,” she added, also describing the fox snout pouch as “the most amazing artifact I’ve had the privilege to work with.”
In addition to DMT and harmine, researchers also found trace amounts of bufotenine, cocaine and benzoylecgonine. Using these substances in any number of combinations would produce mind-altering, hallucinogenic effects. The discovery boasts the largest number of psychoactive substances found in one place in South America.
“Our results indicate that this is the largest number of psychoactive compounds found in association with a single archaeological artifact from South America.”
“While evidence of direct consumption of any of these plants is absent (no human remains were associated with this archaeological context),” the authors write in their study, “the substantial evidence of the presence of hallucinogenic plants is compelling.”
“Few studies have recovered direct evidence of psychoactives in South American archaeological contexts, and this case systematically demonstrates evidence for multiple psychoactive plants found together in a single artifact,” the paper says. “Importantly, as others have noted, these plants come from distant and diverse ecological zones. Because these plants are foreign to the Lípez highlands, it remains to be established whether they were acquired through trading networks or directly by the shamans themselves.”
What is clear is that humans have been using psychoactive plants for medicinal or therapeutic reasons for a very long time—and the push to restore that right is gaining political traction.
Photo courtesy of Jose Capriles/Penn State.