It’s hard to cheer up a child who has just been selected as a sacrifice to the gods, but the Incas may have plied their young slaughter victims with drugs to keep their spirits up, new research suggests.
Appearing in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, the study presents toxicological findings from two children dispatched atop a volcano in Peru, both of whom tested positive for cocaine and alkaloids found in ayahuasca.
Thought to have been aged between six and seven at the time of their demise, the two children were immolated around 500 years ago as part of a capacocha ritual, occurring at an altitude of 5,800 meters on the Ampato mountain.
One of the most significant Inca ceremonies, the capacocha was performed to protect communities from natural disasters, usually involving the sacrifice of children and young women.
For the Incas, however, simply slaying a youngster to appease the gods didn’t quite cut the mustard – bodies were often deposited at strategic points where they were likely to be struck by lightning. In this case, it seems that both the deities and the mortals were satisfied with the proceedings, as both tributes were pounded by lightning bolts after their deaths. As a result, the study authors were only able to obtain a hair sample from one of the bodies and had to make do with a fingernail from the other.
After analyzing these remains, they found that both tested positive for cocaine, suggesting that they were given coca leaves to chew during their final weeks.
The researchers also found traces of the alkaloids harmine and harmaline in both children. Speculating on the source of these chemicals, the authors explain that “the only possible source of harmine and harmaline in the Andean region is Banisteriopsis caapi,” referring to the jungle vine from which the psychedelic brew ayahuasca is made.
Given that these alkaloids are known to boost serotonin levels in the brain and generate anti-depressant effects, the researchers propose that the victims were probably served ayahuasca prior to their slaughter to help them stay positive.
This theory is supported by the diaries of early Spanish conquistadores, who reported that victims’ moods were considered to be of great importance to the success of Inca sacrificial rituals.
“The knowledge of being about to be ritually sacrificed in such a forbidding place as a mountain summit likely produced serious anxiety in a future victim and could have produced a depressive state,” write the authors. “The active consumption of Banisteriopsis caapi might have helped keep the victims more accepting of their fates.”
“If so, this would be the first example of the conscious use of the antidepression properties of ayahuasca,” they conclude.