Pre-Columbian South Americans took their mind-altering drugs very seriously indeed. A pouch containing remnants of at least five psychotropic drugs, from at least three different plants, have been found in a bundle thought to be used in a shamanic ritual, indicating the thought put into preparing for these events a millennia ago.
A rock shelter in the Sora River valley, in southwestern Bolivia, has been intermittently occupied by humans for 4,000 years. At an altitude of 3,900 meters (13,000 feet) life would have been hard there, and chemical assistance was apparently called for.
In the rubble on the cave floor, excavations in 2008 and 2010 found remnants from rituals, braids of human hair, turquoise beads, and a pouch made of three fox snouts. Most revealingly, there were also two wooden tablets carved with human-shaped figures and a snuffing tube with hair braids attached also shaped as a person. The items have been radio-carbon dated to be just over 1,000 years old. It is believed the tablets were used to pulverize drugs plants so they could be snuffed.
Dr Melanie Miller of the University of Otago, New Zealand used mass spectrometry to test a sample from the contents of the pouch and a piece of plant stem. The pouch sample “indicated the presence of at least five psychotropic compounds: cocaine, benzoylecgonine (BZE), harmine, bufotenine, dimethyltryptamine (DMT), and a peak possibly related to psilocin,” she reports in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Cocaine can degrade to BZE so both could have originated from one plant, but no known plant contains all three drugs found on the stem, let alone all five in the pouch. The pouch must have been used to hold at least three psychotropic plants, most likely coca leaves, Anadenanthera seeds and Banisteriopsis caapi, the main ingredient in the hallucinogenic tea ayahuasca. Some, deliberately or otherwise, made contact with the stem. Miller noted none of these plants grow locally, so must have been traded from far afield.
If the possible presence of psilocin is confirmed it probably came from a fungus added to complicate the drug effects still further.
So many psychotropic drugs have never been found together in a single archaeological specimen before. "We already knew that psychotropics were important in the spiritual and religious activities of the societies of the south-central Andes, but we did not know that these people were using so many different compounds and possibly combining them together," said co-author Dr Jose Capriles of Penn State University in a statement.
Shamans, both in the Americas and elsewhere, used psychoactive materials to help them engage with the supernatural, including communicating with the spirits of the dead.