Ayahuasca in hair and psychotropic trade routes: How drugs were used in pre-Incan civilization

Analysis of mummies found at the archaeological site of Cahuachi in Peru has revealed the relationship that the Nazca culture had with narcotics

Cahuachi (Peru)
Mummies found in the Peruvian archaeological zone of Cahuachi, in the department of Ica (Peru).Cortesía

Thousands of years ago on the coast of southern Peru, the head of a child was given as a sacrificial offering to worship the ancestors, call for the rains and implore the gods to make the land fertile. It was a sacrifice that might have served as a gift for the god Kon, the source of all creation, or for the goddess that embodied Mother Earth, represented with prominent breasts and wrapped in iconography of animals and plants: These are the most prominent deities of the pre-Inca civilization that traced the giant geoglyphs that can still be seen on the pampas of Jumana, in the present-day Ica region, 500 kilometers south of Lima.

Before the bloody decapitation, the victim would have consumed San Pedro cactus, a thorny plant with strong hallucinogenic properties. The evidence was revealed by the toxicological analysis of hair samples from 22 mummies found by a team of archaeologists from the University of Warsaw (Poland). The mummies were discovered in the imposing ruins of the ceremonial center of Cahuachi, the sacred site of the ancient capital of the Nazca civilization.

The discovery of these preserved human remains, from various periods of Nazca cultural development, has revealed the oldest known use of the San Pedro cactus in the southern region. The cactus is native to the north of the country and is source of mescaline, a psychedelic drug used in ritual ceremonies and in traditional medicine from pre-Hispanic times to the present day.

The levels of the substance found in the hair of the child, whose sex and age investigators have not been able to uncover, are also the first evidence that some of the victims who became trophy heads were given stimulants before they died, something that had never been evidenced before in a Nazca mummy.

In addition, psychoactive substances from coca leaves were detected in the tufts on one woman’s skull. Coca was an important offering that was used in the Inca Empire — which would be established a thousand years later in the area — to acknowledge status in the social hierarchy, as a payment and a funerary gift. Other hair samples from the mummies also found traces of Banisteriopsis caapi (better known as liana), which is the main active ingredient of ayahuasca. It is also the source of harmine and harmaline, two compounds used in modern antidepressants.

“Based on the compounds found in the child, it is possible that the sacrificial ritual involved the child being given this sacred drink made from hallucinogenic substances, or perhaps inhaled as smoke,” says Gabriel Pietro, professor of Andean archaeology at the University of Florida. A strange case for the specialist, “because the trophy heads used to indicate warriors,” he says.

The Late Nazca period iconography studied to date, coupled with the fact that most of the trophy heads found belong to adult males, suggest that these may have been killed in battle. However, the results of the study support the idea that the mummy heads dating from the early period of this civilization could have been obtained from ritually sacrificed victims, rather than during the warlike conflicts that would later dominate that region. “The appearance of the child’s head tells us that it could have been a very special ceremony,” Pietro clarifies.

Evidence for the first ancient plant trade route

The archaeological research, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, is part of the Nazca Project. This long-running archaeological program that began in 1982 has also yielded new clues about the first trade route for psychotropic plants in the region, whose consumption dates to between 100 BC and 450 AD.

The substances linked to coca plants and the Banisteriopsis caapi plant, which were detected in the mummies’ hair, are not native to the coastal region. This supports the hypothesis that they were probably transported through the Andes Mountains from northern Peru or the Amazon region. According to the authors of the study, the substances ingested during rituals changed over time: while ayahuasca and mescaline became less favored, coca consumption became more common after the Wari, the first Imperial State of Peru, conquered Nazca around 750 AD.

“Although the new finding in Cahuachi indicates that the use of coca, an Andean crop, is not present in this area until the Wari culture begins to make its presence felt in the territory. It could be due to different phenomena,” says Pietro, for whom the development of this civilization was not an absolute conquest over the Nazca people, “but a continuous interaction between these two societies, which influenced each other.”

The archaeologist maintains the suspicion that the evidence of coca in the samples of some of the recently found mummies could be due to the influence of practices brought by the inhabitants of the Peruvian highlands.

“The people of the coast did not chew coca. [This was] a common activity in the contemporary societies of the mountain range, which, in addition to their territorial ambitions, possibly had to face climatic challenges that forced them to migrate to the southwest coast, bringing the habit of chewing with them,” says the expert. “However, we need more studies of human remains to test the various theories of what happened to this culture,” he adds.

Trophy heads to venerate the gods

The Nazca civilization was a hierarchical society that developed in the coastal desert area of Peru. In an extensive basin on this sunbeaten plain, this people built the Center of Cahuachi. Made up of adobe and mud pyramids built on hillsides, this ceremonial center was used by the pre-Inca people to carry out their sacred activities.

Still visible today, the architectural layout in which the veneration of the gods took place, reveals to the experts that this construction “was a temporary residence, possibly inhabited only by an exclusive priestly caste.” “Everything seems to indicate that the Nazca made large pilgrimages and processions at certain times of the year,” says the specialist from the University of Florida.

Both the arid conditions of the area, which allowed the natural preservation of human remains over the centuries, and the elaborate mummification process developed by this pre-Hispanic people, have allowed us to learn more about their culture. “Human sacrifice consisted of a complex ritual with different steps in preparing the victims. After selection, victims had to be given special food and treatments to start the ceremony,” explains Pietro.

Producing the trophy skulls involved a delicate process of curing the remains. Once the head had been decapitated and the entrails removed, the victims’ eyelids and mouths were sealed with thorns extracted from acacias or the huarango tree, which is endemic to the region. “What we still don’t know is how they cured the skin,” the archaeologist clarifies.

As the mummies recovered by the Polish scientists show, “those who were sacrificed had a hole drilled in their foreheads, through which a rope was passed to tie the divine trophy and display it in special places,” says Pietro.

In addition to human remains, archaeologists found a variety of funerary objects at the various burial sites: ceramic vessels with fantastical figures, weaving utensils, a chuspa — a bag made from an animal bladder that the inhabitants of the Andean region of South America still use to carry coca leaves — and various textiles. “The Nazcas made their textiles from cotton, decorated with dyed llama or alpaca wool yarns,” says Pietro.

As there are no written records from this period, everything that is known about the Nazca and other nearby cultures comes from archaeological research. “And each new study sheds some knowledge to better understand how this civilization lived,” the specialist says.

The preservation of naturally mummified bodies in the Nazca basin and nearby areas, along with trophy skulls, provides an opportunity to analyze which psychoactive plants were used for which purposes on the southern Peruvian coast. Toxicological analyses and advances in modern science also allow us to better understand ancient medicine, the religiosity of the peoples of ancient Peru and the traceability of the consumption of commercial plants over long distances. There are important challenges that still involve so many mysteries in pre-Hispanic history.

To date, archaeological teams have been able to recover more than 150 specimens of mummies in the territorial settlements populated by the Nazca culture. “But, considering the territorial expanse that the Nazca inhabited, there are still many, many more secrets to be discovered about this amazing civilization,” reveals Pietro.

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