The indigenous people of South America engage in ayahuasca rituals to this day. This discovery is proof of just how far back its use really goes.
A 1,000-year-old pouch made from three fox snouts sewn together was discovered in Bolivia to contain some tantalizing surprises. According to National Geographic, the pouch held the world’s earliest evidence of ayahuasca among a plethora of other mind-altering substances and drug paraphernalia.
For the uninitiated, ayahuasca is a hallucinogenic beverage composed of two plants. One of these is an enzyme inhibitor which allows psychoactive effects to be processed by the liver. It’s smokable variety, DMT, has significantly crept into pop-culture in recent years.
Scientists believe the archaeological find likely belonged to a shaman. Ayahuasca has been consumed by South America’s indigenous peoples for millennia. Penn State University anthropologist José Capriles originally found the pouch in 2010, but his detailed finding was published in the PNAS journal this week.
Capriles found the pouch in Cueva del Chileno, a rock shelter containing evidence of human habitation from at least 4,000 years ago. The shelter is believed to have been a tomb that was later looted and even the bodies were taken. Evidently, however, the thieves left behind a plethora of goods they mistakenly saw as trash. Among those discarded items were beads, braids of human hair, and a leather bag containing the pouch, a headband, small spatulas made of llama bone, a carved tube, and various wooden platforms used to inhale substances.
Radiocarbon dating of the leather bag showed it was used sometime between 900 and 1170 A.D. While Capriles and his colleagues have yet to identify just what exactly the dried plant remains therein actually are, they tested the chemical signature of the bag’s interior against a variety of plants and found that the bag once contained dimethyltryptamine (DMT), bufotenine, cocaine (likely from coca, which is commonly chewed in the region to this day), benzoylecgonine (BZE), harmine, and possibly psilocin, which is a component in magic mushrooms.
On top of potentially being the earliest recorded archaeological evidence of ayahuasca preparation, the discovery shed light on other aspects of the region, as well. Whoever owned the pouch, for instance, was likely an active traveler or part of a prolific trade network in the area.
Harmine is most easily found in the yage plant, which is found hundreds of miles away from Cueva del Chileno, in the more tropical parts of northern South America. Capriles and his team also believe the DMT remnants likely came from the chacruna plant, the closest of which are in the Amazonian lowlands.
“This person was moving very large distances or had access to people who were,” said Capriles.
However, there’s no scientific evidence to indicate that the shaman actually brewed or used the drug just from what was found in his bag.
Dennis McKenna, an ethnopharmacologist and brother of psychonaut icon Terrence McKenna, said modern ayahuasca preparations “are idiosyncratic,” and that “Every shaman practically has his own brew.”
Capriles is largely convinced that it wasn’t left in Cueva del Chileno by mistake. “We believe that it was left intentionally,” he said. “This is a typical behavior that you see in ritually charged places.”
Similar to psychedelic mushrooms, ayahuasca has made a resurgence in recreational use due to its potential health benefits. These range from addiction therapy to mental health, as well as processing grief or combatting various mood disorders.
For Capriles and McKenna, ayahuasca’s ancient use was likely entirely rooted in spiritual and physical work as opposed to recreation. Capriles said this discovery could well be taken advantage of to boost ayahuasca tourism in the region, but that its sacred appeal is more interesting.
“These people were not just tripping because of entertainment,” he said.
McKenna thoroughly agreed that ayahuasca use has changed in the modern world, but maybe not for the worse.
“It’s used very differently these days — not necessarily in a worse way, but a different way,” he said. “When I use these substances, I am usually astonished by what I experience. They must have been astonished, too.”
Next up, read about the ancient settlement older than the pyramids that was discovered in Canada. Then, learn about the ancient matrilineal society discovered in New Mexico.