1,000-year-old drug pouch reveals evidence of complex ancient psychedelic consumption
The extraordinary discovery of a one-thousand-year-old pouch in southwestern Bolivia has revealed traces of several psychoactive compounds, indicating not only some of the earliest archeological evidence of ayahuasca use but also suggesting significant plant knowledge by the owner of the pouch, and potentially a broad ancient plant trading network.
The discovery was made while investigating the dry Sora River valley in southwestern Bolivia. A ritual bundle in the form of a leather bag was uncovered that included a pouch made of three fox snouts, wooden snuff tablets, a snuff tube, and two llama bone spatulas.
Mass spectrometry radiocarbon dating on the outer leather pouch dated the bundle to sometime between 900 and 1100 CE. It is suggested this ties the entire bundle to the pre-Inca Tiwanaku civilization, a population of people who inhabited the southern Andean highlands for several centuries leading up to around 950 CE.
A tiny scraping sample from inside the fox snout pouch was extensively analyzed to reveal a broad array of psychoactive compounds. Cocaine, and its metabolite benzoylecgonine, were identified, most likely sourced from a coca leaf, along with traces of bufotenine, a psychedelic snuff, and psilocin, a psychoactive agent in magic mushrooms.
But perhaps the most striking discovery was traces of harmine and dimethyltryptamine (DMT), providing what may be the earliest evidence of ancient ayahuasca use ever uncovered. Ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic preparation known to be consumed in shamanic and religious contexts by indigenous populations in South America. The preparation came to the knowledge of Western ethnographers in the mid-1800s, but how far back its preparation goes in history has been the source of some debate amongst ethnopharmacologists.
The element that stands ayahuasca apart from other hallucinogens is its unique combination of two disparate plants that, on their own, have no particular psychoactive strength. The leaves of the Psychotria viridis plant contain the psychedelic DMT, but it has no effect consumed orally by itself. When brewed up with the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, containing harmine, the result is an extraordinarily potent psychedelic drink.
This evidence offers an incredible clue to the ancient origins of this psychedelic brew. It is unclear whether the contents of the pouch were used for ayahuasca as we currently know it, but the combination of psychoactive compounds does suggest the owner of the pouch possessed a sophisticated knowledge of psychedelic plant interactions.
"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," says Jose Capriles, an anthropologist from Penn State working on the project. "This finding suggests that ayahuasca may have been used up to 1,000 years ago."
Another fascinating implication of the discovery is the realization that none of the plant sources behind these psychoactive compounds are known to have grown in the local area where the pouch was found. This suggests the pouch owner went to significant lengths to acquire these particular compounds, either through extensive travel or sophisticated trading networks.
"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," explains Melanie Miller, another researchers working on the project. "This discovery reminds us that people in the past had extensive knowledge of these powerful plants and their potential uses, and they sought them out for their medicinal and psychoactive properties."
The research was published in the journal PNAS.