Throughout the course of human history, cultures around the world have used all manner of substances derived from plants to induce hallucinations and altered states of consciousness. But while we have plentiful evidence for the consumption of alcohol and coffee dating back thousands of years, the same cannot be said for other psychoactive compounds, despite their long history of use.
Now, researchers have analyzed a thousand-year-old ritual kit that they believe once belonged to a shaman in what is now southwestern Bolivia, finding evidence that ancient Native South Americans were using multiple psychoactive substances—possibly simultaneously—within spiritual and religious contexts, including DMT, one of the most powerful psychedelics known to man.
The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, cast new light on humankind’s long experiment with psychoactive substances, and potentially provide the earliest evidence for the use of Ayahuasca—a potent shamanic brew which has been used for hundreds, or possibly thousands, of years by various groups in the Amazon region of South America and beyond.
The ritual kit, or bundle—which was once used in psychoactive ceremonies—was discovered in a rock shelter known locally as Cueva del Chileno located around 13,000 feet above sea level in the Sora River Valley of Bolivia’s Lípez highlands. The region contains evidence for intermittent human settlement over the last 4,000 years or so and many similar rock shelters have been found.
“This is a very remote region of southwestern Bolivia,” José Capriles, lead author of study and an anthropologist from Pennsylvania State University, told Newsweek. “One of the co-directors of the project did some work there for a large mining project in the early 2000s. He found a number of early, pre-ceramic sites. The region was clearly significant so we organized to explore it, trying to find caves and rock shelters. We’ve reported before on some of these other sites, some of which are up to 12,700 years old.”
“A lot of these rock shelters have been used for animals, such as llamas and sheep, so they were covered by a thick layer of manure. This made it a challenge to excavate them,” Capriles said. “But the good thing is that beneath this layer of manure there are really well-preserved stratigraphy [rock layers] in most of these sites. This was the case in Cuevo de Chileno, because when we removed that layer in 2009 we encountered this ritual bundle. That was a surprise for us, we weren’t really expecting it.”
Further investigations of Cuevo de Chileno indicated that the rock shelter was used as a human burial site, which was likely destroyed or desecrated somehow in pre-Hispanic times, leaving no trace of any bodies.
Despite this interference at the site, several ritual items—which are thought to be “trash” left over from a burial ceremony—remained, including the shaman’s bundle, braided human hair, beads, pendants, fragments of textiles and other items, according to Capriles.
“So the ritual bundle is basically a leather bag that has a string knot on its top and it contains two snuffing tablets, two bone spatulas, a textile headband, a snuffing tube, an anthropomorphic figurine, a leather pouch composed of three fox snouts sewed together and fragments of plant and vegetable tissue,” he said.
The researchers analyzed organic residues found in the leather pouch—radiocarbon dated to 1,000 years ago—identifying the presence of several psychoactive compounds including cocaine, benzoylecgonine (BZE), bufotenin, harmine, dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and possibly psilocin.
This findings indicate that at least three different plants/fungi containing these compounds were being used by shamans in the region around 1,000 years ago—the largest number of compounds recovered from a single artifact from this area of the world to date, according to the researchers.
“There are a series of psychoactive compounds found in plants that have been used especially in the Amazonian region but now we also know in the Andes,” Capriles said. “[Finding this number of substances together] is the unprecedented thing.”
The presence of cocaine and its associated chemical BZE indicate the use of coca leaves by the owner of the bundle, the researchers say. Coca leaves—which can be chewed or brewed into tea—have long-been used by people in several regions of South America to alleviate the symptoms of altitude sickness or stomach problems. The active ingredients act as a mild stimulant and anaesthetic.
Meanwhile, the presence of bufotenin suggests that seeds from a group of plants known as Anadenanthera were carried in the shaman’s pouch. Two species in this group, commonly referred to as vilca and yopo, were widely used by South American indigenous groups. They are known to contain a class of psychoactive compounds called tryptamines—of which bufotenin is one type—which can act as stimulants or hallucinogens, depending on the method of ingestion. The seeds, which contain these compounds, can be ground as snuff to be inhaled or mixed into certain beverages.
The identification of harmine and DMT traces is particularly notable as these compounds are the main psychoactive ingredients in ayahuasca. In South America, harmine is found in highest quantities in the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, while the DMT could have come from the Psychotria viridis shrub, although the researchers don’t rule out other sources. To make the ayahuasca brew, shamans mix B. caapi, with other plants—most commonly P. viridis. The combination of the harmine and DMT produces a powerful hallucinogenic experience.
Experts have long debated the historical use of ayahuasca, with some suggesting it was a relatively recent invention, while others claim it has been used for centuries. In the latest study, the researchers argue that their findings may well be the earliest evidence of the beverage’s use, although this conclusion is not definitive because the DMT could also have originated from the plant material which contained the bufotenin. In any case, Capriles notes that the hallucinogenic brew was likely consumed earlier than 1,000 years ago, suggesting it was part of a broad tradition of use in South America.
As well as these findings, the team also made observations that potentially indicate the presence of the compound psilocin—which is found in most psychedelic mushrooms—although these results were inconclusive.
“We initially suspected that were going to find mostly signatures of vilca because in some other burials that contain bundles with snuffing tablets, you typically find the seeds of this plant [which contain bufotenin,]” Capriles said. “But it was really interesting to see that not only this plant was present, but also others, including ones that are typically associated with the ayahuasca beverage.”
The researchers say that the presence of multiple plants in the ritual bundle, which originate from various regions of South America, suggest that hallucinogenic substances were transported across significant distances and that shamans had a sophisticated knowledge of how to use them.
“Many Native American cultures, both past and present, have drawn on their botanical knowledge and incorporated particular species into ritual, social, and medicinal practices,” the authors wrote in the study. “There are numerous plant species native to South America that contain psychoactive compounds, and their use by ancient specialists provides significant clues concerning past knowledge systems and the importance of certain species for cultural practices.”
Often, these plants were used for healing purposes and goals such as awakening, transcendence and/or personal development. As such, the role that shamans played in their consumption, bestowed on them a special importance in these societies.
“Shamans we believe acted as intermediaries between the supernatural world and the natural world or society in general,” Capriles said. “Through the consumption of these substances they communicated and interacted with ancestors or wild plants, and animals like jaguars, raptors, or other creatures. They had an important role in mediating those two planes. And they seem to have been critical components of the society back then.”
This article has been updated to include additional comments from José Capriles.